Qualification for the nation

Apr 11th '24

Always read the small print. That’s what people say, isn’t it? And the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has many names for it – small print, on-screen text, footnotes, and in the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) Code itself, qualifications. But what happens when the qualification contradicts the rest of the ad? Or if the qualification just isn’t legible? And, what happens when the qualification… isn’t even in the ad? 


Small print is small and mighty…and below are three cases which highlight the importance of the humble qualification*.


*May contain useful information!


Everything Everything 

Perhaps the issue seen most often with qualifications is contradictory impressions. This is where the qualification misleadingly contradicts the overall impression of the ad – a straightforward breach of  advertising rules.


An example can be seen in this case – the ASA investigated two ads for clothing retailer In The Style, one on their website and one on Instagram. The website stated, “PAYDAY PROMO ALERT, OUR BIGGEST DISCOUNT OF THE YEAR 40% OFF ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING”, and smaller text stated “*excludes New Saffron Barker, New Lorna Luxe & Beauty”.


In this case, the advertiser argued that all information consumers needed to know was in the ad – it was clear what the exclusions were. However, the ASA considered that a claim such as “40% OFF ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING” would mean that customers would expect every item to be reduced by 40%. Though the asterisk and text were prominently displayed below the headline, it contradicted the rest of the ad, and did not counter the impression that words such as “ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING” gave.


Ad rules state “Marketing communications must state significant limitations and qualifications. Qualifications may clarify but must not contradict the claims that they qualify.” In this instance, though the advertiser ensured that their exclusions were clearly communicated, it did not mitigate the contradictory overall message presented in the ad.


Can’t read all about it 

Along with ensuring you’ve included all material information and not contradicted yourself; you also need to ensure that the qualification is prominent and sufficiently legible. A good example of where the ASA found that this was not the case can be seen in this ruling. In 2019, the ASA investigated a leaflet for Fischer Future Heat.


Among other claims, the ad stated “100% COMPLETE HEATING GUARANTEE (1) … Removing the uncertainty of heating. If our heater does not heat your room to 21 degrees C, we will replace it free of charge – no other heating manufacturer offers this guarantee”. On the other side of the leaflet was a qualification that was over 200 words long, containing information about the warranty, exclusions, eligibility, significant conditions, and a signpost to even more terms and conditions.


The advertiser in this instance stated that the text, which was grey on a white background, would usually appear in black, but a design error had resulted in the final colour. They felt that the font size they had used was standard and considered that most people would be able to read it. The advertisers stated that it was impossible to make the wording legible for everyone, and as such, they had catered for the majority.


When making their assessment, the ASA considered the text contained several significant conditions that would impact a consumer’s transactional decision to make further enquiries. The ASA noted the advertiser’s comments about the design error but could also see that the rest of the ad did not appear to be faded. They also noted that the qualification related to several claims in the ad which did not follow a logical numerical order.


Though those seeing the ad could take their time to read the small print (due to the ad being a leaflet), overall, the ASA considered that the presentation of the small print would be hard for the average person to read, and even more difficult for those with poorer eyesight. Since the qualification contained important information, and was difficult to read, they concluded the ad was likely to mislead customers.


Unlike TV ads, there is no minimum size for small print and qualifications in non-broadcast ads, such as the Fischer leaflet. However, any qualifications should be sufficiently prominent and easily legible. When creating an ad, it’s a good idea to consider a number of factors, such as the font style, font size, colour of the text, background colours/palette, and the medium you are using – for instance, text in leaflets is very different from text on a billboard. Whilst there might be no ‘hard and fast’ guidance for non-broadcast small print, you should simply ask yourself, will consumers be able to read this easily?


Gone baby gone 

And with that comes the last case, in which a qualification was omitted completely. The ad in question was a Tiktok video for a diet plan which featured a man responding to the question “Do you do a free trial before committing?” The man replies “No, it’s £6.99. If I give you a trial, it’s like giving you your calories, your macros, your full training programme, access to all the recipes, and you could be like ‘oh yeah that was a nice trial that I’ve got the full plan now I’m gonna f*** off’.”, with a caption that stated “No trial, it’s £6.99 #weightlossplan #dietplan”.


There was no other information in the video – however, what the advertisers should have made clear was that customers had to subscribe to the plan for 12 months minimum – along with any other material information – such as the fact that consumers, upon signing up, automatically waived their right to a 14-day cooling off period. In all, the minimum price that a customer would pay for the diet programme was £83.88.


Subscription style products and services have boomed in the last few years, and due to an increase in popularity, it’s more important than ever that advertisers make clear the minimum commitment their customers need to make, along with all other significant conditions and material information. You can read more about free trials and subscriptions here.


And that’s the main advice – ensure the qualification is not contradictory, make sure the qualification is prominent and legible and … well, er…just ensure it’s there! You can read all about qualifications and small print here, along with our more extensive guidance here.


That concludes our little tour of qualifications – the little words that contain big information.


Source: CAP


About CAP

The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) is the sister organisation of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and is responsible for writing the Advertising Codes.


Note: This advice is given by the CAP Executive about non-broadcast advertising. It does not constitute legal advice. It does not bind CAP, CAP advisory panels or the ASA. CAP’s AdviceOnline entries provide guidance on interpreting the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing.


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