In its advertising for HDTVs, Comet suggested that even without HDTV signals, the sets would give a clearer picture. Was this right and if they had got it wrong, what could have been the implications?
Topic: Misleading advertising
Who: Comet Group plc
Where: The Advertising Standards Authority
When: December 2005
The ASA received a complaint about a press ad for High Definition Televisions. Headed "Get ready for the revolution" the Comet ad text stated "High Definition TV gives breathtaking picture quality that is truly revolutionary. With pin-sharp pictures that make you believe "you are there," it takes the pleasure of watching TV to a whole new level. Visit your local Comet now to experience high definition picture quality for yourself". Two particular HDTV's were mentioned and small print stated "High definition programming will initially be available through Sky in 2006. Until HD programming launches you will still benefit from greatly improved picture quality from standard broadcasts".
"Improved quality" claim challenged
The complainant challenged the claim "until HD programming launches you will benefit from greatly improved picture quality from standard broadcasts".
In its defence, Comet explained that the capabilities of high definition screens "were a complex technical matter" and they relied on manufacturers for information about them. They said that at the time the ad was created, they did in fact believe honestly that because HD screens had more pixels, viewers would indeed enjoy better picture quality when watching existing broadcasts in standard formats. Comet said that subsequently the manufacturers had told them that the picture quality might not be better and they had amended their ads accordingly.
In its adjudication the ASA said it understood that HD televisions offered better picture quality than ordinary TVs only if the programme was both recorded and transmitted in HD format. Therefore a breach of Code paragraphs 3.1 (substantiation), 6.1 (honesty) and 7.1 (truthfulness) was found to have occurred.
Why this matters:
HDTV has been hailed as "the next big thing" in home entertainment. This may be true, but there has nevertheless been a considerable amount of unjustified hype regarding the new format and equipment which is designed to be compatible with it. There can be no doubt that as with most new technologies, there is a considerable amount of public confusion about how HDTV works and advertising of the kind dealt with here is certainly not going to help.
Civil action for damages risk
It should also be remembered that clear advertising assertions as to product characteristics which turn out to be false are not only fodder for the ASA. They are capable of being the subject of prosecutions under the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 and can also legitimately form the basis of civil proceedings for breach of contract by a disappointed purchaser.
This is confirmed by the 1997 case of Robert Anthony v Norwich & Peterborough Building Society in the Norwich County Court.
A brochure promoting the defendant building society's TESSA included the clear statement "Whatever your level of investment, TESSA Elite will pay a very competitive rate of interest annually for each day your money is invested".
Some 18 months after Mr Anthony purchased the TESSA, the interest rate ceased to be competitive and he sued. The Court agreed that the clear assertion in the brochure was a term of the contract which Mr Anthony entered into with the Building Society when he purchased the TESSA. The Building Society's failure to deliver on the promise was a breach of that contract and damages were awarded to Mr Anthony which were equivalent to what he should have received if the rate had continued to be competitive.
We see no reason why different consideration should apply to the purchase of a TV on the basis of incorrect product descriptions in advertising.