Neil McNicholas: When advertisers’ boasts don’t come out in the wash...

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THE Advertising Standards Authority website describes itself as “the self-regulatory organisation of the advertising industry”. It goes on to say that its code of advertising practice “broadly reflects legislation in many instances” and that its codes stipulate that “no marketing communication [it doesn’t call them adverts] should mislead, or be likely to mislead, by inaccuracy, ambiguity, exaggeration, omission or otherwise”.

If you unpick those statements you will see that there was never a greater need to remember the old Latin adage: caveat emptor – “let the buyer beware” – because the ASA doesn’t appear to be doing it for us.

Sadly on my television remote control there isn’t a button that allows you to skip the adverts. The best you can do is press the mute button. Having said that, there is actually much to be gained, and learned, by comparing what advertisers ideally want you to hear and see from the advert itself, and what the law requires them to tell you in the small – often very small, often very compact – print at the bottom of the screen.

The very fact that they have to do that in order to tip their hat to the law on advertising standards clearly indicates that what is simultaneously being shown or said may not otherwise be legal. And that in itself would suggest that an attempt is being made to be “misleading, inaccurate, ambiguous or an exaggeration” – precisely what the so-called code forbids. Only by reading the small print at the bottom of the screen will you actually discover the truth.

Advertisers don’t really want you to read the small print – in fact they will make the visual imagery and the voice-over as interesting as possible precisely so that you don’t. It’s those two elements that are designed – at great expense – to sell you their product. Even though it is a nuisance, in order to fulfil the law they may then have to include at the bottom of the screen information they really didn’t want you to know. And it’s noticeable that this extra information often appears immediately the voice-over begins – a sure indication that what it is they are telling you isn’t accurate or there’d be no need for the small print.

There is currently an advertisement – sorry a “marketing communication” (to give it its posh ASA name) – for a toothpaste that claims to give the user noticeably brilliantly white teeth. That’s the whole point of the advert – that’s the entire message of the visual and audio content – that’s what the manufacturer wants you to think will be the result of using its product, and who wouldn’t want to have noticeably brilliantly white teeth? Only if you manage to read the small print in the midst of all the brilliance would you discover that the claim applies “only immediately after you brush”, in other words only until the whiteners disappear when you eat or drink or anything else you might normally use your teeth for! A coat of white enamel would last longer (but don’t try this at home).

A well-known dishwasher detergent shows a stained wine glass being dipped into a solution of the cleaner to show how well it removes stains. Meanwhile the bottom of the screen tells you – if you are looking and reading – that the elapsed immersion time is actually an hour and a half! In other words, the performance is no better than you’d expect of dishwasher detergent on a 90- minute wash anyway.

Furniture sales will show a bed and the sale price, but then up comes a message to say “headboard not included” or “mattress not included”. What, then, are you buying and paying for? Just the box-spring apparently.

Two major television satellite/cable companies and a national telephone company provide more information in the multiple sentences of small print across the bottom of the screen throughout their adverts than is given in the voice-over. Clearly it isn’t what is being said that you really need to know.

“Terms and conditions apply”. “Exclusions apply”. What terms and conditions? What exclusions? And how exactly do they change or qualify what it is that is being advertised?

The “best” are the adverts for handheld computer games that show Hollywood-esque action sequences but then you will see (but they hope you don’t) at the bottom of the screen “Not actual game footage”. Then why do they show it? They are actually advertising their product by showing it doing something it can’t do. How do they get away with that? It’s like showing pictures of Hawaii when you’re actually selling a holiday in Redcar (which is where I live, so I know!).

And don’t get me started on the astronomical interest rates (again in the small print) charged by pay-day loan companies.

Caveat emptor – as we always have to – and look before you leap.

• Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Middlesbrough.