ASA: not so hot on truth in advertising

The Advertising Standards Authority recently asked a car company to pull its ad from daytime TV because it showed adult cyclists – in Copenhagen – not wearing helmets, something that could encourage child cyclists to go lid-free, too.

Such a nannying response from the ASA is odd. The organisation claims it makes sure marketing is “legal, decent, honest and truthful.”

There’s nothing truthful in enforcing non-mandatory helmet wearing for cyclists featured in advertising. Motorists smash their heads open, too. Why doesn’t the ASA ask advertisers to always picture drivers wearing motoring helmets? Because the ASA isn’t genuinely bothered about honesty or truthfulness.

Two blogs discovered this when they complained to the ASA about car adverts which featured claims about ‘road tax’, a charge 74 years dead.

The lofidelitybicycleclub and the Peoples Cycling Front of South Gloucestershire were given short shrift by the ASA. Both were sent boilerplate answers.

“We have assessed the ad and your complaint but consider that there are insufficient grounds for ASA intervention on this occasion…As long as the content of an ad does not breach our Code, it is really up to the advertisers what they want to put in them. In this case, although we acknowledge that the correct term is “Vehicle Excise Duty”, more commonly used phrases such as “Road Tax” are often used by advertisers to convey a message in a way that will be understood by the widest audience.

“We also note that this ad makes no direct or implied comments about cyclists or their right to use public roads. I further note that you have made reference to a previous scheduling restriction we required for an ad which showed potentially unsafe cycling practices which could result in harm to children. In that case, we were concerned about the potentially harmful effect of glamorising cycling without a helmet to children. We do not have similarly pressing concerns in relation to this particular ad. We consider that this ad is unlikely to mislead consumers to their detriment or promote a view that only motorists pay for road building and maintenance. For these reasons we will not be taking any further action on this occasion.”

But the ASA implied that it may change its corporate mind on the subject when the person handing down the (lack of) adjudication said: “however we will continue to monitor the public response to this ad.”

This is also odd because, on a page about homeopathy websites, the ASA said: “We don’t play a numbers game – we can act on just one complaint.”

Indeed, the bicycle helmet adjudication came after just one complaint. But the ASA boilerplate bot seems happy to allow the ASA to be among those organisations who think it’s truthful to use the phrase ‘road tax’.

Yes, Vehicle Excise Duty is a mouthful but ‘car tax’ or ‘vehicle tax’ isn’t. VED is not a tax to use roads, it’s a tax on motorised vehicles. And it’s not as though the ASA doesn’t know this. In an adjudication regarding the DVLA in 2007, the ASA used the phrase “car tax” throughout.

What has happened since? Did the boilerplate bot not get the memo?

If ASA really believed in honesty in advertising it would issue a simple guideline for car advertisers: listen, guys, you can keep the fantasies about zero congestion, speeding and occultism, but don’t call it ‘road tax’, cos it doesn’t exist.