Who: The University of Law (“UoL“) and Advertising Standards Agency (the “ASA“)
When: 16 November 2016
Law stated as at: 15 December 2016
The UoL, a provider of undergraduate, postgraduate and professional legal training, received complaints about two ads that it published or was associated with. In both cases, the ASA’s investigation centred around the UoL’s ability to substantiate the claims in the ads. Since the UoL was unable to do this in either case, the ads were held to be misleading to consumers, in breach of the CAP Code.
The “lawyer’s earnings” claim
The first ad, published online, attempted to attract prospective students to the UoL’s law conversion course by claiming that “in the first 5 years of work a lawyer can expect to earn an average of £54,000 a year”, in comparison with “the national average of £26,000”.
The ad was published in consultation with a marketing firm, Marketing VF (MVF), and when viewed online by the complainant, it linked to further information about the UoL. It emerged that UoL paid MVF based on the numbers of requests for its brochures and further information generated by the ad.
MVF supplied the ASA with newspaper articles as evidence for their claim about a lawyer’s average earnings. The articles stated that the £54,000 figure applied to “average earnings in the legal industry” and that UK average earnings were £499 per week. MVF also claimed that it, rather than UoL, was solely responsible for the ad.
The ASA held that the newspaper articles were not adequate substantiation for the claim about lawyers’ earnings and instead, MVF should have supplied the original research that was being reported. It also held that because UoL had paid MVF for interest generated by the ad, UoL was the marketer for the purposes of the CAP Code and so could be held responsible for the content of the ad.
The “leading law school” claim
The second ad was published in the national press and contained the wording, “Secure your place at the UK’s leading law school.” This ad was written and published by UoL, rather than any third-party marketing company.
On investigation, UoL provided internal documentation showing, among other things, that it:
- had the most postgraduate students of any provider of postgraduate legal training in the UK;
- had more students who secured training contracts with firms of solicitors than other providers;
- had higher percentages of Bar students achieving top grades and gaining pupillages with barristers’ chambers than the national average; and
- was ranked joint first for overall student satisfaction at universities and higher education providers in a survey given by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
However, the ad did not explain that this was the basis of the “leading law school” claim, and the ASA considered that without such an explanation, consumers were unlikely to interpret this claim as relating to the number of places offered and students enrolled. The ASA also considered that to substantiate its claims, UoL should have been able to support them with independently verified data, rather than data used for internal purposes.
Why this matters:
This decision is a reminder that the CAP Code applies to a wide range of entities including organisations such as education providers, and even those who outsource their marketing or who are indirectly associated with certain ads.
In response to complaints that ads could be misleading to consumers, advertisers should be prepared to substantiate their claims, and under the CAP Code, this substantiating evidence should be compiled before the ads are published. The evidence provided should be objective, robust, independently verified, and based on original research, rather than second hand reports.
Finally, where the basis for a “leading” claim is not made clear in an ad, the advertiser should be prepared to substantiate it on whatever basis or bases the ASA believes is/are appropriate.