Food complaints top advertising blacklist in 2002

Related tags Advertising Asa

The number of complaints about food and drink adverts in the UK
rocketed by 175 per cent last year, with just two companies alone
accounting for 568 of the 1,222 complaints, according to the
Advertising Standards Authority.

Complaints against food and drink companies in the UK increased from 445 in 2001 to 1,222 last year, a rise of 175 per cent, according to the latest annual report from the Advertising Standards Authority.

While many of these complaints were not upheld, an equally large number of them were, and many involved false or misleading claims about the benefits of consuming the food and drink product in question.

The main culprit in this regard during the year was Tetley Tea, whose advertising campaign featured claims about the drink's heart healthy benefits.

The campaign ran into trouble following a challenge by the Food Commission which objected that the claim 'Tetley Tea is rich in antioxidants that can keep your heart healthy' misleadingly implied that drinking tea had proven health benefits. One of the posters, reported to be part of a £15 million campaign, had the headline 'Go on, live a lot', and the Food Commission argued that this implied that drinking tea would prolong life.

While it is certainly true to say that there has been a sharp rise in the amount of scientific evidence to suggest that certain types of tea can be beneficial to health, the ASA said that Tetley had not supplied enough evidence to justify the claims relating to longevity and heart health.

However, the two food companies which featured in the top 10 list of most complained about advertising campaigns - Unilever Bestfoods UK and McDonalds - were not criticised for false health claims.

Unilever featured twice in the list, with two separate adverts for its Pot Noodle brand criticised by members of the public. One, using the tagline 'The slag of all snacks', garnered 126 complaints but did not incur the wrath of the ASA, which said that it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.

The other featured the tagline 'Hurt me you slag' and was found offensive by 288 people - an opinion upheld by the ASA which said the connotations of sexual violence were too strong.

Despite the large number of complaints, the advertising campaign has significantly increased sales of the snack, showing that in a world where consumers are bombarded with advertising, the shock factor can often make all the difference.

McDonald's advert, which was criticised by 154 people, did feature a claim, but not one which was health related. The poster campaign featured eight food items available at McDonald's stores under the tagline '40,312 possible combinations', a claim which the complainants said was mathematically impossible.

While the ASA agreed with this assessment, it said that the main thrust of the campaign was to suggest that there was a wide choice of food products available at McDonald's and that this was justified.

Other cases relating to false claims include that of Marlow Foods, the manufacturer of meat substitute Quorn, which the ASA ruled had been misleading consumers by describing the food as 'mushroom in origin'. Despite Marlow's explanation that it used the term because customers were unfamiliar with the main ingredient, mycoprotein, the ASA considered that the claim implied that Quorn was made from mushroom.

Another food ruling with wider ramifications for the industry was the result of a complaint about a national press advertisement that showed a man holding a plate of steak, with the copy 'Fancy a bit of Scotch Beef? Raised the way you want it. Specially selected Scotch Beef.'

The complaint stated that the ad misleadingly implied that 'Specially selected Scotch Beef' was born and raised entirely in Scotland, and was upheld by the ASA. The advertisers, Quality Meat Scotland, had explained that the ad did not state that Scotch beef was from cattle born and raised in Scotland; it merely stated the beef was Scotch.

They pointed out that under European regulation, provided the cattle was slaughtered in Scotland and had been reared there for at least 90 days it could be called Scotch beef. However, the ASA Council considered that the claim 'Raised the way you want it' implied that all Scotch beef was from cattle raised in Scotland and that because some Scotch beef was from cattle that had been in Scotland for only 90 days, and not raised there, the advertisement was misleading.

Full details of the ASA's report can be found on the agency's website​.

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