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Dealing with misleading adverts

Although advertising is required by companies in order to attract custom, some companies set out to mislead consumers with their advertisements by trying to sell goods or services that are not what they purport to be. These types of advertisements are against the law.

How is advertising in the UK controlled?

There are various codes of practice, which largely govern advertising in the UK, with the aim of ensuring fairness for advertisers and protection for consumers. Two industry bodies – the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) – are responsible for writing and maintaining the advertising code of practice.

The codes are administered by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which is an independent body that also investigates complaints about advertisements. Essentially, the codes of practice make up a body of rules requiring all advertisements to be “legal, decent, honest and truthful”. The codes cover many different forms of advertisement, including the following:

  • print and press advertisements;
  • direct mail;
  • posters;
  • television and radio advertisements;
  • internet;
  • email and text messages; and
  • teleshopping.

The self-regulatory system is backed up by legislation, specifically, the Control of Misleading Advertisements Regulations 1988. Under the Regulations, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) is required to investigate complaints and has the power to stop the publication of an advertisement through an application to the courts for an injunction. However, in practice, any action by the OFT will only be taken following a referral from the ASA when the self-regulatory system has not worked. In addition, the OFT will normally only approach the courts as a last resort and will first ask the advertiser to modify or not repeat an offending advertisement.

Who should you complain to?

If you are concerned that an advertisement is misleading, you should report it. In the first instance, you should complain to the ASA if you think there is something wrong with an advert you have seen or heard; or if you find an advert offensive. Apart from advertisements about financial services and telephone advertisements, the ASA can consider complaints about all advertisements.

You will need to complain in writing to the ASA and, if possible, include a copy of the advert, details of where and when you saw or heard it, and an explanation as to why you feel that it is misleading. Following an investigation by the ASA, they can issue a ruling or ‘adjudication’ against the advertiser, requiring assurances that either the offending aspects of the advertisement will not be repeated or the advertisement will be removed altogether. If an advertiser ignores a ruling by the ASA, further sanctions can be applied to them. If this does not prevent a repeat of the offending advertisement, the ASA may refer the matter to the OFT for investigation.

If you consider that an advertisement needs to be removed straightaway, for example, if you see an advertisement for goods you know to be dangerous or illegal, you should contact Consumer Direct. In addition, complaints about advertisements being obscene and potentially illegal can be directed to the Obscene Publications Unit of the Home Office. 

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