ASA Adjudication on The Readers Digest Association Ltd
The Readers Digest Association Ltd
11 Westferry Circus
3 September 2008
Number of complaints:
A direct mailing, for a Reader's Digest prize draw, was headed “***PERSONAL CORRESPONDENCE*** ENCLOSED FOR THE EYES OF XXXX ONLY". Text stated "Please don’t tell anyone you received this letter from me - at least not yet. I’m breaking with standard procedure and bringing news that is in your favour. It’s a good idea to keep these documents private as only you can benefit from their contents. Many people (including residents of xxxx and even neighbours of yours on xxxx) have previously expressed interest in our Grand Prize Draw. If they, or anyone else, read the documents I’ve enclosed today, they might become jealous as you, xxxx, are one of a specially selected group who have been automatically advanced directly to the £250,000 Winner Selection Stage. That's right, XXX, your numbers are already among those from which the next £250,000 winner will be drawn, and since they are unique to you, you are the only person in the entire United Kingdom entitled to claim any cash prize they may go on to win. On top of that, you're one of our very best customers, After 8 years, I hope you know how much we value your loyalty. What you might not realise, however, is that news of this exceptional upgrade is only being shared with loyal customers like you. You see, pre-approving your Winner Selection Stage clearance by automatically entering your numbers in the draw is not standard procedure - on average agreement is given just a couple of times a year. Now you can see why I've sent you this personal correspondence".
1. The complainant challenged whether the mailing, in particular the text "don't tell anyone you received this letter" and "keep these documents private", was irresponsible, because it could exploit the credulity of vulnerable people and could discourage them from discussing whether they should respond to the ad.
2. The ASA challenged whether the mailing overstated consumers' chance of winning prizes and implied recipients were luckier than they were.
CAP Code (Edition 11)
Reader's Digest said they had been running prize draws and contests in the UK for over 30 years to help draw attention to their product offers in what they hoped was a fun and exciting way. To date, they said they had given away over £23 million in cash and other prizes. They said winners were randomly selected under independent supervision and details of all their most recent winners were available upon request or could be found on the Reader's Digest website.
They said the mailing was sent out in April in good faith to a specially selected group of their existing music and book customers. They said the draw referred to in the letter had a first prize of £250,000, together with £50,000 worth of other prizes. They said entry to major draws such as this was by invitation. They randomly allocated one or more prize draw numbers to recipients, issued them with prize draw documents and then invited them to return the documents to them so that the allocated numbers could be entered into that particular draw. Numbers that were not returned were not entered. However, they said this mailing was different from the majority of their prize draws because they had written to a selection of their existing customers to advise them that they were breaking with standard procedures and automatically advancing them directly into the 'Winner Selection Stage' of the Grand Prize Draw, in which they could win the £250,000 first prize. They said that meant that no action was required on the customer's behalf to enter the draw.
1. Reader's Digest said because the mailing was sent to existing loyal customers they would therefore be familiar with their mailings and the way their draws operated. They said the opening line of the mailing "Enclosed for the eyes of XXX only" was used merely to add a hint of intrigue and excitement to the mailing. They said they were also careful to qualify language such as "don't tell anyone you've received this letter" and "keep these documents private" with "please ... at least not yet" and "Its a good idea to" so that recipients were aware that these were merely suggestions and not absolute statements. They said they were also careful to ensure that the tone of the letter, and the rest of the mailing, was not aggressive or likely to cause distress to their customers.
They said the main core of the letter simply and clearly explained, in a light-hearted and non-threatening way, that the recipient might wish to keep the contents a secret because some of their neighbours, who in the past would have been required to send back the prize draw documents to enter the Grand Prize Draw, might become 'jealous' if they found out that they had not been granted the same automatic entry status. They also said one section of the mailing contained a personalised document that included details of how long the recipient had been a loyal customer with Readers Digest, how many products they had bought and recent purchase history - details which the recipient might also want to keep private.
They said that given the target audience and the language used throughout that letter and the rest of the mailing, they considered that recipients were likely to understand that they were merely offering the chance to win a prize in their Grand Prize Draw and that recipients were therefore unlikely to take the claims "don't tell anyone you received this letter" and "keep these documents private" literally or be discouraged from discussing the contents with anyone.
2. Reader's Digest said every prize draw number they issued was unique and no one else, other than the recipient of that number, had the chance to win a prize with it. They said they therefore considered that the claim "you are the only person in the United Kingdom entitled to claim any cash that they [the prize draw numbers] might go on to win" was justified. They said they liked to offer extra privileges to loyal customers and because only a small percentage of their mailings ever offered automatic entry, and it was only ever offered to existing customers, they considered that it was correct to refer to automatic entry as a 'privilege' in that context.
Reader's Digest said the purpose of the whole mailing was merely to highlight their products, inform a selected number of existing Reader's Digest customers that they had automatically entered their numbers into the stage of the draw and offer further prize draw incentives. They said at no point did they state or imply that because of the positive action that they had taken on behalf of the recipient they therefore had a better chance of winning than everyone else.
Reader's Digest said the mailing had been assessed by the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) who considered that the mailing did not breach the Code of Practice on Direct Marketing. They provided a written statement from the DMA in support of the view that the mailing was in compliance with the Code.
The ASA noted the mailing was sent to a selection of customers only and Reader's Digest had automatically entered those customers into their Grand Prize Draw, whereas other customers would have to return the prize draw numbers to be eligible to win the prize. We noted they had suggested recipients should keep the mailing private to avoid their neighbours becoming jealous but they had not intended those statements to be interpreted literally.
We considered, however, that language such as "PERSONAL CORRESPONDENCE" and "Please don't tell anyone you received this letter from me - at least not yet" could confuse recipients, particularly when many recipients were likely to be elderly. We understood Trading Standards advised consumers to discuss unsolicited letters with friends and relatives before entering into any kind of prize draw activity. We considered that by directly telling consumers to keep the mailing private and not to discuss it with anyone the mailing was irresponsible and in breach of the Code.
On this point, the mailing breached CAP Code clause 2.2 (Responsible advertising).
We noted Reader's Digest believed that because automatic entry to their prize draw was only offered to specially selected customers it was appropriate for that automatic entry to be described as a privilege. We noted Reader's Digest normal procedure meant customers had to return their prize draw numbers to enter the draw and we therefore considered it was acceptable to state that they were "breaking with standard procedure".
We considered, however, that claims such as "bringing you news that is in your favour" and "this exceptional upgrade" implied that recipients were at an advantage, because they had been specially selected and automatically entered into the Grand Prize Draw, whereas we understood their chances of winning remained the same as entrants who entered the prize draw in the normal way. We also considered that the claim "your numbers are already among those from which the next £250,000 winner will be drawn and since they are unique to you, you are the only person in the entire United Kingdom entitled to claim any cash prize they may go on to win" exaggerated the chance of the numbers winning the prize and implied that the recipients prize numbers were different from those entrants who had not been automatically entered. We also noted the Winner Stage Selection form which was included with the mailing was stamped with text stating "FINALIST COPY" and "£250,000 FINALIST" and we considered that implied that consumers had progressed further in the promotion than was in fact the case.
We considered that the mailing implied that recipients were luckier than they were and therefore concluded that it was likely to mislead.
On this point, the mailing breached 7.1 (Truthfulness), 35.2 and 35.3 (Sales Promotion rules).
We told Reader's Digest not to use the mailing again.
Adjudication of the ASA Council (Non-broadcast)