One week into 2017 and the action we’ve taken to stop misleading ad claims about fracking by Friends of the Earth has hit the national media and prompted widespread debate and commentary. But amidst the reports, the public comments by the parties involved and the social media chatter, there’s a risk that the facts become obscured.
So let me be clear. We told Friends of the Earth that based on the evidence we’d seen, claims it made in its anti-fracking leaflet or claims with the same meaning cannot be repeated, and asked for an assurance that they wouldn’t be. Friends of the Earth gave us an assurance to that effect. Unless the evidence changes, that means it mustn’t repeat in ads claims about the effects of fracking on the health of local populations, drinking water or property prices.
Friends of the Earth has said we “dropped the case”. That’s not an accurate reflection of what’s happened. We thoroughly investigated the complaints we received and closed the case on receipt of the above assurance. Because of that, we decided against publishing a formal ruling, but plainly that’s not the same thing as “dropping the case”. Crucially, the claims under the microscope mustn’t reappear in ads, unless the evidence changes. Dropped cases don’t have that outcome.
Resolving cases informally, usually following our receipt of an assurance that claims won’t be repeated, is an important tool in our toolkit, allowing us to be proportionate and targeted in how we tackle problems. No-one should be under any illusion that the process of looking into these matters is anything other than rigorous.
Advertisers of all kinds, be they commercial companies, charities or even government departments, sometimes fight tooth and nail to defend their right to promote their products, services or policies or to raise awareness of their causes or ideas. That’s perfectly legitimate. But when advertising claims aren’t properly supported by evidence and people are likely to be misled, we’ll step in to make sure they don’t reappear. What matters is advertisers are held to account when they need to be.
Fracking is clearly a highly contentious issue that polarises opinion. Both sides of the debate want to get their views across; want to win hearts and minds. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. As an even-handed regulator, we don’t take sides. Friends of the Earth got it wrong on this occasion, but the businesses behind the fracking that it opposes also have to follow the advertising rules. Indeed, we’ve taken action before against the fracking industry for its own ad claims, when they haven’t stood up to scrutiny.
Debates between parties with polar opposite views can become highly fractious. But that won’t get in the way of us taking action to stop problem ads from reappearing.
Guy became Chief Executive of the ASA, the UK regulator of ads in all media, in 2009. Responsible for executing the ASA’s strategy to make UK ads responsible, he oversees all functions of the ASA system. Read more