Two interesting price comparison adjudications concerning retailers have been published this month by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA.) They illustrate the requirements for checking prices and products in claims and providing clarity and transparency in the supporting information.
Firstly Tesco’s comparison claims on baskets of goods with Aldi and Lidl were examined and found to be a mixed bag(!) Whilst timing and comparison of products were found to be in line with code requirements the lack of availability of products across all shops had not been made clear enough despite some small print.
Availability – The ASA held that the ads made clear the comparison was between entry tier exclusive brands at Tesco and entry tier exclusive brands at Aldi and Lidl, as opposed to typical shops at each retailer, and Tesco had included in the comparison products that would provide for a fair and representative comparison of the price of products in those entry tier ranges. However, there were limitations on the availability of products; more than half of Tesco’s larger stores would not have been able to offer the combination of Tesco products used to calculate the savings it was claimed consumers could make by switching to Tesco. Whilst some ads contained small print stating “Selected stores excluding Express” the ASA considered consumers would understand that to mean that not all products included in the comparison would be available in all Tesco stores, and they would not all be available in Express stores, but that otherwise they would be unaware of the extent or nature of the excluded stores.
Timing – It was found that a a delay of up to four working days between the price check dates and the ads being published or broadcast, and the ads were not published or broadcast for more than three consecutive dates, was unlikely to mislead.
Comparison products – The emphasis of the comparison was 'price' rather than 'quality'; however the ASA looked at the selection of bacons and found this to be in line with consumer expectation of the appropriate product comparison. This was despite there being another cheaper bacon product with similar pork content available due to the way the bacon was recommended to be prepared and Tesco also having cheaper bacon available. The ASA also noted that if (in this case) Aldi's cheaper bacon product had been used in the comparison, Tesco would have still had the cheapest basket/trolleys in the ads but the savings would have been reduced by 50p.
Earlier in the month Iceland’s advertising of it’s price promoted ‘UK’s cheapest cuppa’ had had all 3 areas of complaint upheld against it and this may be a salutary lesson to ensure clarity of contemporaneous information.
Timing – The complaint against Iceland on a time limited price promotion ad was however upheld as misleading because the ad related to a current short-term offer at Iceland, the ASA considered consumers would therefore expect to make the stated saving by purchasing the products from Iceland rather than Tesco at the time the ad appeared. Whilst the ad made clear that the Iceland prices were part of a promotion, and that it stated in the small print that the prices were checked on 12 February and that the saving was based on “Tesco standard prices”the ASA still considered that in the absence of further, more prominent, clarifying information, consumers would be likely to understand that none of the featured items were currently subject to a promotional price at Tesco. The prices Iceland had used for their own products were not the prices charged on 12 February but their own promotional prices that they would be charging when the ad was published five weeks later. Additionally, at the time the prices were checked, PG Tips was available in Tesco at the promotional price of £4 rather than the £5.99 stated in the ad. The prices therefore did not reflect the prices that consumers paid at either Iceland or Tesco on 12 February. Furthermore, by the time the ad was published the price at Tesco had further reduced.
The ASA were also concerned that there was a time difference of over a month between when the prices were checked and when the ad first appeared and that no attempt had been made to re-validate the prices in the intervening period to ensure that the ad reflected current prices as far as was possible.
Identifiable competitors – the absolute claim stated “UK’s cheapest cuppa;” however Iceland clarified that they only checked prices at the supermarket chains Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Waitrose, and the online retailer Ocado. Because Iceland did not have evidence which confirmed that Iceland’s total price for the featured products was cheaper than all other UK retailers, the ASA concluded the claim was misleading.
Verifiable - The CAP Code required that comparisons with identifiable competitors must be verifiable. That meant that an ad which featured a comparison with an identifiable competitor or competitors needed to include, or direct consumers to, sufficient information to allow them to understand the comparison, and be able to check the claims were accurate, or ask someone suitably qualified to do so.
The ASA stated that it considered the text “For full details visit www.iceland.co.uk/offers-terms” in the small print clearly signposted to consumers where they could find more detailed information about the basis of the comparison.
However, they then reviewed the verification information to determine whether it was presented in such a way that it was sufficiently clear for consumers to understand the basis of the claim and check it was accurate. The pricing information was presented in a series of tables, each relating to a product variant and the prices of that product at Iceland and the six comparator retailers. If a retailer was offering a promotion, both the non-promotional price and the promotional price were included, with a summary of the type of promotion (e.g. “£1.50 (Promo)” and “2 for £2 Promo”). Prices were stated in both a per item and a per 100 g format, and text underneath each table clarified whether the comparison was made on a per pack or per 100 g basis. That text also included information that the prices were checked against standard prices, and, where the tables included promotional prices, against promotional prices, although no clarification was provided as to whether the claim in the ad was based on a comparison of the non-promotional or promotional prices. The information also included a table relating to a brand of tea which was not featured in the ad due to regional variation, although this was not explained in the document. Given that the information included prices, at seven retailers, for four different products, two of which had two or more variants and one of which was not featured in the ad, included both non-promotional and promotional prices including some for multi-buy offers, and that in some instances the comparison was based on a price per pack size and in others on a price per 100 g, the ASA considered that without a calculation of the total price of the ‘cuppa’ at each retailer and a clear explanation of the basis of those calculations, the basis of the comparison was not made sufficiently clear to consumers and breached the Code.
The key summary from these judgements is the need to ensure clarity and transparency of information so that the customer is clearly informed of exactly what products are being compared and in what context. Sometimes too much information can be just as confusing as too little and if an absolute claim is made then be prepared to substantiate this.