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May your ads be merry and right

Posted on 13 December 2019

The build up to Christmas is the busiest time of the year for many retailers. It includes Black Friday, Cyber Monday and then the home stretch to Christmas and the Boxing Day sales. To seize on this opportunity, businesses invest heavily in their Christmas advertising campaigns; just ask John Lewis and Coca-Cola whose Christmas ads are now seen by many as the unofficial start to the festive season.  But every year, some advertisers make it onto the Advertising Standards Authority's naughty list (and Santa's too…probably). This article looks back at some previous Christmas related ASA decisions for what kind of advertising to avoid this Christmas.  

Christmas sale!

Savings claims are a common promotional tool and are used heavily in the post-Christmas sales. Common claims include reductions such as “was £59.99, now £24.99” or sales promotions like "buy one, get one half price". But care should be taken that those claims do not mislead and reflect the reality of the offer. The ASA found Eurocar’s claim “Our Biggest Ever CHRISTMAS SALE” to be misleading because the claim “UP TO 69% OFF” exaggerated the savings available and the discount was against outdated prices.

Time limited offers are another common method of enticing customers, but those promotions must not deprive consumers of sufficient opportunity or time to make an informed choice by falsely stating that a product is only available on those terms for a very limited time. PrettyLittleThing’s use of “HURRY” along with a countdown clock was found to be misleading as it indicated a time-limited offer, which implied that the consumer would be getting a savings benefit compared to the usual cost of next day delivery - which was not the case in this instance.

…out of stock

When running any kind of promotion, you must make a reasonable estimate of the likely demand, especially during this busy period of the year. If someone complains about your promotion, it may be important to provide evidence of the stock and availability of a product during a price promotion to prove it wasn't simply a case of advertising to garner attention and 'switch-sell'.  

A Christmas promotion offering a saving from Hotels4U, stated “£50 off your booking on Christmas Day”. This attracted complaints when customers were unable to take advantage of the offer. After finding that Hotels4U had not made a reasonable estimate of the demand for the advertised promotion, the ASA ruled that the ad breached the Advertising CAP codes.

Delivery from the North Pole

As most retailers will not have a magical sleigh that can guarantee next day delivery, it's important to factor in potential disruptions and delays and be cautious when making promises about delivery dates, especially if consumers are likely to be expecting delivery in time for Christmas. Bear in mind that deliveries can get lost, even Father Christmas has probably delivered an item or two down the wrong chimney in his time. Retailers should therefore make sure they are comfortable they can substantiate their claims about delivery timeframes.

The ASA upheld 280 complaints about Amazon Prime’s “One-Day Delivery” service, as they considered that consumers were likely to interpret the claim as meaning they would receive their goods the day after making their order, rather than the day after Amazon dispatched it.

Finally, retailers should be transparent about where they deliver – avoiding unqualified statements such as “Free UK Delivery” where exclusions apply to areas such as Northern Ireland, or “Mainland GB Delivery” when the offer doesn’t apply to the Scottish Highlands. The ASA has received a significant number of complaints in recent years about misleading “UK Delivery” offers that excluded large parts of the country forcing CAP to publish an Enforcement Notice on Advertised Delivery Restrictions and Surcharges last year.

Christmas time, mistletoe and wine

Sure, retailers should have a merry little Christmas, but remember that advertising should be responsible, particularly when it features alcohol.  

In 2018, the ASA ruled that Epic Pub Company’s Christmas-time “barrow of booze” promotion was irresponsible because it encouraged excessive drinking, as the ‘barrow’ constituted up to 14 units of alcohol per person. Similarly, the ASA upheld a complaint concerning a two-hour “bottomless prosecco” offer by Suede Bar & Nightclubs as it could encourage binge drinking over a short period.

Secondly, retailers should be mindful of their audience – if the product isn’t suitable for children it’s important that the ads don’t include any pictures or characters that might appeal to them. An ad for e-cigarette brand ‘The Vapes’ that included images of Santa, a gingerbread man and an elf were held to be non-compliant because they were likely to appeal to children.

Likewise, retailers shouild be cautious about incidental references. Supermarket ads that appeal to children because they include Christmas characters should be careful about promoting alcohol even if alcohol is featured alongside a number of other products.

Festive fun, not offence

Christmas holds religious significance for many people, so retailers should take care not to cause serious or widespread offence in their ads when it comes to religion, but also of race, gender stereotypes, sexual orientation, disability or age.

Complaints about religious offence are not unusual around this time of year. In one example, in the run up to Christmas, a poster displayed the morning-after pill with the accompanying slogan “Immaculate contraception? If only”. After receiving 182 complaints, the ASA held that this was likely to cause serious or widespread offence to those of the Catholic faith (Schering Health Care Ltd, 22 December 2004). In 2006, an ad for Paddy Power, which featured Jesus in a casino and his apostles playing roulette, was upheld by the ASA for the same reason (Paddy Power, 11 January 2006).

Not all references to Christian beliefs are likely to be in breach though – there is still room for humour. The ASA received a complaint about an ad by Antonio Federici featuring a traditional nativity scene headed “The three very wise ice cream men” and featured Mary holding a spoon along with three wise men bearing gifts of ice cream. Here the ASA acknowledged that some consumers may find the ad to be distasteful. However they concluded that most consumers would understand that it was a light-hearted take on the biblical story.

Finally, it is not just religious portrayals that can lead to complaints. A TV ad by supermarket giant Asda in 2013, which stated “Behind every great Christmas there’s mum, and behind mum there’s Asda”, prompted 620 complaints that it was offensive and sexist because it reinforced outdated stereotypes of men and women in the home. The ASA dismissed the complaint and sided with Asda who argued the ad reflected the Christmas experience for a significant number of their customers, rather than condoning or encouraging harmful discriminatory behaviour. It is questionable whether the ASA would come to the same conclusion in 2019, given the focus on challenging gender stereotyping.

In a nutshell, there is no doubt that Christmas campaigns can really help to drive sales during this busy period. Christmas ads can be the most creative and fun, but retailers should try to be compliant this Christmas so that everyone is talking about their ads for the right reasons.

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