A regional radio ad for Thames Water offered an amnesty to all users who had for fair reasons or foul been enjoying water supplies without receiving any bills. Years of back charges were threatened for those who kept schtum. But then the utility changed tack. Omar Bucchioni reports the consequences.
Topic: Misleading advertising
Who: ASA and Thames Water Utilities (Thames Water)
When: May 2011
Law stated as at: 1 June 2011
Recently the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) investigated a radio ad, for Thames Water. The radio ad broadcasted on 11 February stated “Thames Water is tracking down people in London and the Thames Valley who are getting our water, but not our bill. This isn’t fair on our paying customers. So, for six weeks, there’ll be an amnesty. If you haven’t been receiving a bill, tell us and we’ll waive the charges and start afresh. But if you don’t and are found after the amnesty, you could face years of back charges …”.
Two listeners challenged whether the ad was misleading because they tried to take advantage of the amnesty but received bills for backdated water charges.
What Thames Water had to say
Thames Water (TW) was adamant that the radio ad was not materially misleading, or likely to mislead. They explained that this ad was part of a campaign urging people who used their water to contact TW by calling their amnesty phone line if they had never received a bill.
They also recognised that, due to the brevity of the radio ad, this did not go into the same level of detail as the press releases which explained how the campaign was targeted at customers in properties not recorded on their systems, because the property had been sub-divided or was a new connection about which Thames Water had not been notified.
Some unbilled customers, for example those customers who had not received bills because they had not informed TW when they moved into a property that was already on the system, or where issued bills had not been received, were dealt with on a case by case basis and, depending on their particular circumstances, they had had their charges waived.
What the ASA had to say
The ad breached the BCAP Code: Upheld – The ad must not be broadcast again in its present form.
The ASA noted the amnesty was aimed specifically at people in properties that were not listed on Thames Waters systems, but also understood that there were other reasons why a person listening to the radio ad might not have received a bill.
The ad stated “[people] who are getting our water, but not our bill” and “If you haven’t been receiving a bill …” giving the wrong impression that anyone who had not been receiving bills from TW (for whatever reason) would have been able to benefit from the amnesty.
Since the amnesty only applied in particular circumstances, the ASA considered the ad to be in breach of rules 3.1 and 3.2 of the BCAP Code (Misleading advertising).
Why this matters:
A couple of points to take away from this adjudication:
- promoters must make sure that the information provided in a radio ad is sufficiently clear to deliver the right interpretation of the message; and
- if there are fundamental limitations on the availability of the offer then these should be stated regardless of the media used, as reasons related to the brevity of the advertising spot purchased for not providing key information are not necessarily a good excuse.
The case is reported on the ASA website.