In three recent cases the ASA considered complaints that even before they were opened, mailings breached the CAP Code. Could a ‘Good news’ message on the front or a brown envelope sink an otherwise compliant mailing?
Topic: Envelope Claims gone too far?
Who: Border Coatings Ltd; Children's Society; Video Arts Group
Where: Advertising Standards Authority ("ASA")
When: September 2006
Three recent "envelope claims" came before the ASA, underlining that this is an area where caution must be taken when issuing marketing communications.
Border Coatings Ltd' s "Good News"
A mailing was sent for building repairs, containing information on the building services provided by Border Coatings and a reply card inviting recipients to request a free no obligation survey and quotation. The text on the envelope stated "Good News".
A recipient complained to the ASA stating that the envelope claiming "Good News" had exaggerated the importance of the contents.
The ASA challenged whether the mailing made clear that it was a marketing communication.
In fact this "Good News" mailing had been previously used by Border Coatings and the ASA had investigated the matter then. The ASA told Border Coatings not to use this mailing as it exaggerated and mislead recipients as to the contents of the mailing, (breaching CAP code 7.1, in terms of truthfulness) and the mailing was not identifiable marketing (breaching CAP code 22.1). Despite receiving assurances from Border Coatings that this mailing would not be used again and a copy of the amended mailing would be sent to the ASA, nothing was ever received by the ASA.
Border Coatings said the mailing was an old one and had been distributed in error by the Royal Mail, alleging that they had amended the envelope, following the previous investigation to show that it was from Border Coatings.
This complaint was upheld.
Children's Society "Urgent Please Reply by: 27 May 2006"
A mailing from the Children's Society contained the following text on the front of the envelope: "No time to pack when you're running from abuse…URGENT PLEASE REPLY BY: 27 May 2006". A visible toothbrush was enclosed and on the back of the envelope the advertiser's stamp, address and registered charity number were printed.
The recipient's son complained to the ASA stating that the mailing was offensive and threatening, with particular reference to the statement "No time to pack when you're running from abuse…", as it implied that his mother, the recipient, was at risk from abuse, or that a complaint had been made against her. Furthermore the envelope failed to make it clear enough that the mailing was marketing material from a children's charity.
The Children's Society said that the envelope highlighted the fact that many young children survive on the streets in only the clothes they were wearing when they ran away. Thus the aim of the mailing was to encourage new supporters by getting the message across to gain funds. The mailing was clearly identifiable as a mass marketing communication because of the Royal Mail mark, used for high volume direct mail as opposed to a stamp. Furthermore that it was unlikely to cause widespread fear and distress to recipients because of the context of the charity appeal, (charity details clearly marked on the back of the envelope).
The ASA supported the Children's Society arguments.
The complaint was not upheld.
Video Arts Group t/a Video Arts P45
A business to business direct mailing, for Video Arts Group ("VAG"), featured a mock P45, in a plain brown envelope, with the name of the recipient and details of the training materials offered by VAG in place of the usual employment details in a P45.
A recipient who worked for a firm whose employees were currently facing redundancy found the mailing to be misleading because it looked like a genuine P45; and had the potential to cause distress.
VAG said the mailing was intended to be a spoof P45 form to promote their latest training based on BBC 2's show the apprentice and the mailing was only sent to human resources ("HR") managers in medium to large firms, therefore the mailing was obviously fake, (VAG provided an illustration outlining the differences between a genuine P45 and a fake one). In addition the envelope had a mail sort on the front and VAG's name and postal address printed on the reverse of the envelope together with their email details and postal address printed prominently on the form. Furthermore P45's did not always carry negative connotations as HR managers received them upon new employees starting work at a firm. VAG provided the ASA with an email that was used as part of the promotion, preparing and notifying recipients of the training service two weeks prior to the postal mailing of the P45.
The ASA noted the email sent two weeks prior to the postal mailing, but stated that the email gave no indication that VAG would be sending a follow-up mailing. With regards to the postal mailing the envelope gave little indication that the mailing was a marketing communication and the ASA felt it was likely to mislead recipients. In addition the P45 contained sufficient similarities to lead recipients to believe initially that the mailing was a genuine P45. On these points the ASA held the mailing breached CAP code 7.1 (truthfulness) and 22.1 (recognised marketing communications and identifying marketers), so the complaint was upheld.
A complaint was not upheld with regards to CAP code 9.1 (fear and distress), as the P45's were unlikely to be mistaken as genuine P45's, thus unlikely to cause distress among recipients.
Why this matters
In all these cases, small issues and omissions led to complaints by recipients initiating the ASA cases and the ASA raising its own complaints in addition. So attention to detail is key, with particular attention to ensuring that all mailings are clearly identifiable as marketing communications. The CAP code has issued a help note on claims on envelopes: http://www.cap.org.uk/NR/rdonlyres2/1F610937-CD7C-4563-BC7A-156B93639207/0/envelope_claims.pdf, which is extremely useful and should be referred to before finalising the type and appearance of envelopes used for mailings.