ASA finds Ryanair’s “Jab and Go” advertising irresponsible and misleading

United Kingdom

The ASA has upheld thousands of complaints against Ryanair’s “Jab and Go” ads, for encouraging consumers to book flights following the roll-out of the UK vaccination programme, labelling them irresponsible and misleading.

The ads

Two TV ads for Ryanair, shown over the Christmas and new year period, began with an image of a medical syringe and a vial labelled “VACCINE” and large on-screen text saying “VACCINES ARE COMING”. A voiceover said “Covid vaccines are coming. So book your Easter and summer holidays today with Ryanair…you could jab and go!” Footage showed groups of people in their twenties and thirties enjoying holiday destinations. The voiceover continued, “Book today on Ryanair.com and if your plans change, so could your booking.” Large on-screen text appeared which stated “JAB & GO!”.

The complaints

The ASA received 2,370 complaints, which challenged the ads on the grounds that the ads were:

  1. Misleading, as they implied that most of the UK population would be vaccinated against Covid-19 by spring/summer 2021 and able to travel unaffected by the pandemic and Covid-19 restrictions.

  2. Offensive, for trivialising ongoing restrictions and effects of the pandemic on society and individuals.

  3. Irresponsible.

Ryanair’s response

Ryanair said that the ads did not make any claims concerning who would be vaccinated, when they would be vaccinated, how vaccines would be administered, or how long it would take for people to become fully protected. They also said that the word “could” in the claim “So you could jab and go!” avoided any guarantee that people who wished to travel would be vaccinated in time to do so.

Ryanair also relied heavily on government communications. They said that the government’s optimistic briefings into early January 2021 implied that a significant proportion of the population would be vaccinated by the middle of 2021. They also said that, in light of NHS and government communications, the public would understand that immunity was built over time, not instantaneously. As such, they did not believe viewers would interpret the term “jab” to refer to a single dose of vaccine, which would enable them to experience immediate immunity and thereby allow them to go on holiday.

Ryanair further said that the ads were intended to be uplifting and to highlight a brighter future when holidays would be possible. They denied that the ads were insensitive.

Clearcast also referred to the hopeful message of the ads. They said that, at the time they cleared the scripts, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine had just been approved, England was coming out of its second lockdown, and the government had announced that families would be able to meet at Christmas. Clearcast also emphasised the conditional nature of the word “could”, and noted the words “vaccines are coming”, which suggested a rollout rather than that vaccines were available to everyone immediately.

The ASA’s ruling

The ASA upheld the complaints that the ads were misleading and irresponsible, but not that they were offensive.

Misleading

The ASA acknowledged that information about Covid-19 vaccines, the UK’s vaccination rollout, and travel and other restrictions was available from a wide range of sources, and that the pandemic was the focus of the news and government messaging from November 2020 to January 2021. However, due to the complex and constantly evolving situation, the ASA considered that consumers could easily be confused or uncertain about the situation at any given time, and said that it was important that advertisers were cautious. This applied especially where advertisers linked developments in the UK’s response to the pandemic to specific timeframes by when life might return to normal, particularly when linking it to how confident consumers could be when making purchasing decisions.

The ASA also considered that the conditionality of the word “could”, in the claim “so you could jab and go!”, was overridden by the overall impact of the other elements of the ad. These included the imagery of the syringe and vaccine vial, the claim “vaccines are coming”, and the large on-screen text “JAB & GO!” It also included scenes of people shown close together, jumping into a pool, and of a couple being served by a waiter, none of whom were wearing masks. In that context the ASA considered that viewers would understand the key message of the ads to be that once vaccinated against Covid-19 people could go on holiday without restrictions.

The ASA further noted that at the time the ads were broadcast, the vaccination rate was significantly below the government’s vaccine delivery plan. It was therefore highly unlikely that people not in phase one of the rollout would be maximally protected by summer or Easter 2021.

The ASA also understood that while the vaccines were proven to provide protection for individuals against developing serious illness, vaccinated individuals might still spread the virus. Travel restrictions, and other restrictions, such as social distancing and mask-wearing, were therefore likely to remain the same for both vaccinated and non-vaccinated individuals in at least the short- to medium-term. The implication that most people who wished to go on holiday at Easter or summer 2021 would be vaccinated in time to do so, and that being vaccinated against Covid-19 would allow people to go on holiday without restrictions during those periods, was therefore misleading.

On this point, the ASA found the ads breached BCAP Code rule 3.1 (Misleading advertising).

Irresponsible

As above, the ASA considered that as a result the overall impact of the ad (including featuring people who were not socially distancing or wearing masks) and the immediacy suggested by “Jab and Go!”, viewers were likely to infer that by Easter and summer 2021 it would be possible for anyone to get vaccinated in order to go on holiday, that maximal protection could be achieved immediately through one dose of the vaccine, and that restrictions around social distancing and mask wearing would not be necessary once individuals were vaccinated. The ASA considered this could encourage vaccinated individuals to disregard or lessen their adherence to restrictions, which in the short term could expose them to the risk of serious illness, and in the longer term might result in them spreading the virus. As such, the ASA found the ads could encourage people to behave irresponsibly once vaccinated.

The ASA therefore concluded the ads were irresponsible and breached BCAP Code rule 1.2 (Responsible advertising).

Offensive

The ASA noted that the ads did not make any reference to the medically vulnerable, or those who had been ill or had lost someone to Covid-19. While the tone was celebratory, the ASA did not consider that it trivialised the wider impacts of the pandemic. As such, the ASA found that, although some viewers may have found the tone of the adverts distasteful, they were unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.

On this point, the ASA found that the ads were not in breach of BCAP Code rule 4.2 (Harm and offence).

Comment

Use extra caution in relation to fast-moving public events: the ruling is of particular interest in its comments in relation to the fast-moving nature of the pandemic response. It refers to the evolution of the vaccine programme and government messaging from November 2020 to January 2021, which meant that consumers could easily be confused or uncertain about the situation at any given time. It also emphasises the need for caution when linking developments in the UK’s response to the pandemic to specific timeframes for life returning to normal. Advertisers seeking to promote products and services in response to public events should take note of the need for caution, and the potential for consumer uncertainty, in similar circumstances.

Check again at the time of broadcast: Ryanair’s and Clearcast’s responses emphasised the positive backdrop at the time the ads were made. However, the ASA pointed out that by the time of broadcast the situation was less positive. Advertisers should also revisit this kind of ad at the time of broadcast, to make sure that developments since an ad was created have not rendered it misleading or irresponsible in the meantime.

Always consider ads as a whole: Ryanair relied heavily on the conditional word “could”. However this was overridden by the overall presentation of the ad, which included images of a syringe and vaccine vial, and of holidaymakers shown close together and without masks. This is a reminder that, as always, ads should be reviewed as a whole, and claims considered in context.

High threshold for offence: in recent years the ASA has tended to find that the public is not easily offended, and to be unmoved by the volume of complaints. Despite thousands of complaints, the ASA did not find that presenting an upbeat message about emerging from the pandemic was in itself offensive, or trivialised the effects of the pandemic.

Co-authored by Stuart Helmer and Aysha Kaplankiran.