Who: Sit-Up Limited (“Sit-Up”) trading as ‘Bid’ and ‘Price Drop’, the Advertising Standards Authority (“ASA”) and Ofcom
When: 21 May 2013
Law stated as at: 3 June 2013
Following repeated breaches of the BCAP code, Sit-Up, who is the licensee for three different free-to-air teleshopping channels, has been referred to Ofcom in respect of the actions of two of its channels, ‘Bid’ and ‘Price Drop’.
The channels provide auction-style teleshopping services whereby live broadcasts are aired during which presenters focus on a specific item for sale. Viewers are able to ring up a special sales hotline during the segments to purchase the items which are often advertised as below standard retail prices for a limited time only.
In recent months, the number of complaints upheld by the ASA has shot up. Whereas only two breaches of the BCAP code by Sit-Up were investigated in 2011, since January 2012 there have been 32 situations where the teleshopping provider has been judged to have contravened the broadcasting rules following a full ASA investigation.
The majority of these infringements have been because Sit-Up has been deemed to have misled viewers.
“Lowest price you’ve ever seen” claim challenged
For instance, in the last few weeks the ASA has taken exception to claims that a Canon IXUS 500 camera with a 16GB SD card was available at the “lowest price ever for a camera” when being sold on Bid for £125. The presenters pushed this point home, claiming that the camera was “the lowest price you’ve ever seen” and “the lowest price ever”.
Although Sit-Up claimed that the reference was to the lowest price that the product had ever been available on the Bid channel, the same camera had been available on Sit-Up’s other channel, Price Drop, for £1 during the ‘megadrop’ feature in January 2013.
The ASA took the view that there was insufficient clarity over the lowest price claims and that the assertions could be taken to mean that the price was the lowest available anywhere, even on other television channels. As this was clearly not the case, the ad was found to fall foul of the BCAP code on grounds of being misleading, unsubstantiated, exaggerated and incorrect in terms of price claims.
Office built into tablet?
More recently, the ASA looked into a complaint concerning statements made by a host of Bid during a live broadcast that a Yarvik tablet computer came “with Office built into it; so Word, Excel and Powerpoint” in relation to the OfficeSuite app that was pre-installed on the tablet. Whereas the presenter expounded the benefits of being able to do “your assignments, your homework, your business projects” using the tablet, he failed to sufficiently explain that the version of the app which came with the tablet was the free one which only provided limited features.
Whereas the full paid version of the OfficeSuite app allows users to create and edit documents, features which are generally important when undertaking assignments and the like, the free version provided on the tablet only allows users to open, view and print documents. Unsurprisingly, the ASA viewed the description of the tablet’s potential uses to be misleading those who might infer that they could enjoy the full range of OfficeSuite features.
“Smothered with diamonds” when there were only eight?
It seems that it has not just been Sit-Up’s Bid channel which has fallen foul of broadcast advertising guidelines. Price Drop has been complained about on five occasions this year. In April, an objection was made concerning a Christin Lars watch for sale which the presenter described as “surrounded by diamonds”, “smothered in diamonds” and as having “diamonds all around the bezel”. Given that the watch had eight diamonds in total, the ASA took the view that to say it was “smothered” would be an overstatement and that the value of the item had been exaggerated.
Why this matters:
Since the ASA has been in charge of regulating advertising, referrals to Ofcom have been somewhat of a rarity. However, Sit-Up’s continued breaches were clearly viewed by the ASA as serious enough to warrant the referral. A statement released by the ASA described how it was “concerned that the number of misleading ads creates an on-going and cumulative risk of financial detriment to consumers”.
Given the nature of live teleshopping, where, unlike traditional broadcast adverts, there is less scope for the description of the offers to be vetted before being released to the public, some might find it understandable that a presenter could make unintentional embellishments or provide slightly inaccurate information whilst the cameras are rolling. However, it is the sheer number of upheld complaints, along with the lack of significant improvement in Sit-Up’s compliance, which has ultimately led the ASA to resort to referral to Ofcom.
“Clear message” on high pressure, time-limited offers
Guy Parker, the Chief Executive of the ASA said that in such situations “where presenters make high-pressure, time-limited offers, it’s crucial that viewers are given accurate information…Our referral to Ofcom sends a clear message that companies who don’t deal fairly with consumers will face consequences.”
Other similar auction channels should take heed that high standards are expected by the ASA, whilst advertisers in general should be alert to the reality that repeated flouting of advertising codes could lead to similar action being taken.
Undoubtedly the consequences of the referral could be serious for Sit-Up. Ofcom has accepted the referral and, after carrying out its own investigation of Sit-Up’s breaches, there will be three possible courses of action that it may take: to do nothing; to fine Sit-Up for its persistent violations; or to revoke Sit-Up’s broadcasting licence in respect of Bid and/or Price Drop. Until the Ofcom decision is published it is hard to know which way the regulator’s decision will fall. However what is certain is that the referral has shown the ASA’s capacity to take a tough stance when required in respect of those repeat offenders of advertising rules.