New year, new ASA adjudications against misleading and irresponsible debt ads

United Kingdom

At this time of year many people struggle with debt. The ASA has today published three upheld rulings in relation to debt generally, one against a retailer which irresponsibly encouraged people to buy products on credit, and two others against debt advice services to which people misled by the retailer might have turned.

Studio Retail Ltd

In October 2020 Studio Retail, a catalogue and online shopping retailer, broadcast a TV and VoD ad showing a family at Christmas. Voiceover said “The Clarks got everything you see for a great price at … Find your wow and go all out this Christmas at”. Viewers complained that the ads were irresponsible because they encouraged the use of credit to finance excessive Christmas spending.

Upholding the complaint, the ASA focused particularly on the exhortation to “go all out”, which it said was irresponsible. It also frowned upon “get everything you see” (in the context of an ad showing a family surrounded by non-essential goods) and the phrase “find your wow”.

This ruling seems to have turned substantially on the nebulous 8-letter phrase “go all out”. That such a short, vague phrase appears to have been a significant factor in this upheld complaint emphasises the importance of considering all meanings of a claim.

Fidelitas Group Ltd

Five paid-for search ads and a website encouraged people to obtain debt advice and apply for an individual voluntary arrangement (an alternative to bankruptcy). Claims included “Write Off Debts & Save £1000’s – With An IVA Debt Relief Scheme”. Several ads referred to the government, for example “Government Created Debt Relief” and “Government Approved Bankruptcy”, and quoted web addresses included “government” and “gov”. One ad included the Money Advice Service logo, and another exhorted consumers to “GET EXPERT ADVICE”.

The Money and Pensions Service challenged whether the ads misleadingly suggested an association with the Government and the endorsement of the Money Advice Service, and that “GET EXPERT ADVICE” was misleading because the advertiser did not have appropriate FCA authorisation. The ASA challenged whether the risks and fees associated with an IVA were sufficiently prominent.

The ASA found the references to the government went beyond the mere provision of information, and suggested an association with either the Government or Citizens Advice. Likewise, the reference to the Money Advice Service went beyond the advertiser’s obligation to make the availability of free debt advice known to clients, and gave the impression of an association or endorsement. The ads breached the rules on misleading advertising and testimonials.

National Direct Service t/a Step Debt Support

Similarly to the Fidelitas ruling, a paid-for internet search ad and a website offering IVA applications referred to “Free Government Debt Support – Step into Change”. They offered “Best Advice Policy – Friendly Debt Advice – Free Advice”.

Again, the Money and Pensions Service and the ASA itself both challenged the claims. The ASA ruled against the advertiser on numerous grounds, including that the ads misleadingly suggested associations with the StepChange Debt charity and the Government, and that the advertiser was authorised to give debt advice. The ads also implied that applying for an IVA was free and failed to make clear the risks associated with an IVA.

Reducing harm

It is unsurprising that complaints against these seriously misleading debt advice ads were upheld. However, it is interesting to note the combined efforts of the Money and Pensions Service and the ASA in both cases.

The ASA has indicated that it intends to focus more on general harm reduction, as well as enforcing the specific rules of the CAP Code. These three rulings could be seen as a step in that direction.