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 Advertising Standards Authority.

Universities may wish to help prospective students make a decision by making comparative claims with other institutions, whether about students’ grades, rankings, teaching, student experience or other aspects. Choosing a University can be a difficult decision and a big commitment, and it is important that advertisers do not make claims which could mislead would-be students into making the wrong decision. Code rules 3.33 to 3.37 apply to comparisons with identifiable competitors.

Establish what type of comparative claim you wish to make

When making a claim, you should consider how the reader will interpret it; make sure the claim is not ambiguous. Common types of claims are “best”, “no. 1”, “leading”, ranking, and top parity. Different types of claims will require different types of evidence.

Make sure you hold the relevant evidence

If making a claim which readers are likely to interpret as objective, advertisers must ensure that they hold robust evidence to substantiate it.

An ad for East Anglia University which stated “Top 5 for student satisfaction (National Student Survey 2005-2016)” was ruled against because it did not make it clear what this claim was based on and the advertiser did not have sufficient evidence to substantiate the claim as it would be understood by consumers (University of East Anglia, 15 Nov 2017).

The ASA also upheld a complaint against an ad for Falmouth University which stated “The UK’s No 1 Arts University (for three years running)” and “THE UK’S NUMBER ONE CREATIVE UNIVERSITY”, because the advertiser did not have sufficient evidence to substantiate  the claims (Falmouth University, 15 Nov 2017).

Make the basis of the claim clear and include necessary qualifications

The ASA has upheld complaints about multiple ads for universities which have not made the basis of comparative claims clear (University of Leicester, 15 Nov 2017 and Teesside University, 15 Nov 2017). An ad for UWL which stated “named as London’s top modern university - and one of the top 10 in the UK - in the Guardian University Guide 2018” was ruled misleading by the ASA, which considered that, in the absence of qualification, the term “modern universities” was ambiguous. The ASA reminded the advertiser to ensure that in future, claims which may be interpreted in differing ways should be qualified sufficiently.  The ASA also found that the advertiser did not have sufficient evidence to substantiate the claim (University of West London, 15 Nov 2017).

For more information see our AOL on Claims that require qualification.

Accurately represent the evidence

Advertisers should ensure that the claims they make do not exaggerate or go further than the evidence held.  An ad for the University of Strathclyde included a headline which stated “We’re ranked No.1 in the UK”, with text below this stating “The Department of Physics at the University of Strathclyde, in the centre of Glasgow, has been rated number one in the UK for research in the REF 2014.” Whilst the advertiser had evidence that 40% and 56% of their research was rated world class or excellent respectively, the REF 2014 results did not formally rank the universities. The University of Strathclyde only provided evidence of being ranked as “No.1” for physics research by the Times Higher Education's analysis of the REF 2014 results, rather than directly by the REF 2014 assessment.  As such, the ASA ruled that the ad was misleading and told the advertiser to ensure they only make claims for which they have evidence (University of Strathclyde, 15 Nov 2017).

Make comparative claims verifiable

The Code also states that all comparisons with identifiable competitors must be verifiable. This means that the advertiser should set out the relevant information in the ad or signpost to where the information used to make that comparison can be checked by the target audience. See our AOL on Comparisons: Verifiability for more information. 

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