I was on holiday when I saw the chalked sign: Free Beer. I was intrigued, but from the start the one thing I did not expect was any free beer. As I approached the shop displaying the sign I could see smaller words chalked above each of the larger ones.
What was on offer was free WiFi and cold beer. It was a bit of clever advertising and, given that in the two minutes I was there to take the photograph three other people came to read the full message, it was effective.
The sign and the decor gave an overall impression of laid back atmosphere and pleasant service, and in that respect it was spot on. Was there any intent to deceive? More to the point, was anyone deceived?
With regards to the legislation, such a sign might be sailing a bit close to the wind but many companies could consider it a risk worth taking. After all, anyone who was deceived, and didn’t mind admitting it to strangers in the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), was not the café’s target audience. Even if things did turn a bit legal, the reports might well give those who would find the place attractive a reason to attend.
What’s the worst that could happen? Being told off by the toothless ASA? Hardly something to be frightened of.
Perhaps that what Electronic Healing, a company that comes under the title of alternative therapies thought. In email marketing and on their web pages, the company claimed various benefits for various products. There were complaints and the ASA found against the company on the grounds of misleading advertising: substantiation and medicines, medical devices, health-related products and beauty products, CAP code rules 3.1, 3.7 and 12.1 respectively.
It was not the end of the matter. The company failed to respond to notifications and continued to make the claims regarding the effectiveness of their products, both via email marketing and online. The ASA placed the matter in the hands of the Office of Fair Trading and the company suffered fines and costs totalling £16,000. In addition, their company premises were searched, and there are considerable on-costs with that.
The ASA CEO stated that their penalty sent out, “a clear and strong message to advertisers that, where they are unwilling to cooperate and stick to the rules, there can be legal consequences”.
The whole process took four years from the original complaints but a level has been established with regards unsupportable claims from alternative therapy companies, which the ASA has had a number of disputes with over the years.
I would suggest that the boundaries need to be tested and in this case a marker has been set down. But what about that chalked sign? I’m not suggesting copying the little trick, but ask yourself if you feel something similar is worth the risk.
I asked earlier what is the worst that could happen.
In the case of free beer, there was no intent to deceive. The targeted customers might not only find it amusing but would be encouraged to visit. Would the ASA throw the book at you?