Summary of Council decision:
Three issues were investigated, all of which were Upheld.
A website and a poster for the AA:
a. The website www.theaa.com, seen on 20 April 2021, stated on the homepage “We’ll get you back on the road Join the UK’s number 1 breakdown service provider”. Text on the “breakdown-cover” webpage stated “Get breakdown cover from £6 a month With the UK’s largest breakdown provider” accompanied by an image of an AA van with a driver inside and two call-to-action buttons which stated, “Get started” and “Existing members”. Text underneath stated, “More mobile mechanics than any other UK breakdown service” with a link to a footnote.
b. A poster, that appeared on the back of a bus, also seen during April 2021, featured an image of an AA van with text which stated, “Join the UK’s No.1.”
RAC Motoring Services challenged whether the following claims were misleading and could be substantiated:
1. “the UK’s largest breakdown provider” in ad (a), and
2. “The UK’s number 1 breakdown service provider” in ad (a) and “Join the UK’s No.1” in ad (b).
3. They also challenged whether the claims were verifiable.
1. AA Ltd t/a AA said they drew on a range of objective sources and supporting data to corroborate the claims. They said the number of their customers who had chosen an AA breakdown product and purchased it directly from the AA, known as direct members, was considerably more than the number of RAC members.
AA said their total direct membership base included those individuals who had independently chosen an AA breakdown product and purchased it directly from the AA and that the campaign and their advertising activities in general, specifically targeted direct members. They said they had actively attracted and retained more direct members than the RAC, which made them the largest breakdown service provider.
AA said they were obliged to use the most recent publicly available information regarding RAC’s direct member base. They referred to data for the RAC’s total direct members provided in an investor presentation dated 11 March 2021 for the financial year ending 31 December 2020. They also referred to figures taken from an investor report, dated 6 September 2021, for the six months ending on 30 June 2021. The figures AA provided for their own members were dated April 2021, when the ad was seen, and 31 October 2021. They acknowledged the difference in date range for the figures they quoted, but they said because the RAC had only reported an increase of 4.1% for its direct member base over the last two financial years, it was highly improbable that RAC’s direct member base had grown exponentially to now exceed AA’s share of the direct member market at the time the ad was seen or at the end of October 2021.
AA said their business to business to consumer (B2B2C) membership base comprised relationships with vehicle manufacturers, fleet operators, insurers and financial institutions. AA said although RAC had a greater number of B2B2C members, they believed RAC’s methodology for counting and reporting members was unclear, and they were unable to establish the veracity of RAC’s reported B2B2C numbers. They also said they did not fully understand how RAC defined its B2B2C relationships so that a fair and accurate comparison could be made. However, AA also said the ad campaign would not have been interpreted and understood by consumers as targeting B2B2C members because it was designed to target direct members, rather than those who received AA cover as an ancillary benefit. AA said the B2B2C membership volume of the RAC did not, in any case, impact their status as the “largest” breakdown service provider in the UK and the AA still had the most members overall. AA said they were obliged to form a view based on the historical information disclosed by the RAC. They said the most recent figures disclosed publicly by the RAC, and in the absence of any updated figures, demonstrated that AA had more members in aggregate than RAC, which supported the claim that they were the largest breakdown service provider.
AA said that reference to the “largest” could also be interpreted by consumers in the context of the scale of an organisation’s infrastructure. In the specific context of breakdown services, that could be illustrated by the number of directly employed patrols an organisation had at its disposal to service its members. They said the AA had more patrols than any other UK breakdown provider. AA also acknowledged that “largest” could be interpreted by consumers as the number of times a service was provided, such as the number of breakdowns attended. They compared the number of breakdowns they attended with that of RAC’s and said AA attended more breakdowns than any other competitor.
2. AA said in relation to the claim “the UK’s No.1” that they considered it should be based on evidence related to sales data or market share. Based on a market research study conducted in July 2021, which covered December 2020 to March 2021, they said the study found that AA had a 47% share of the direct market compared to 22% by RAC.AA said consumers could also interpret the claim to mean that AA was the “best” breakdown service provider in the UK overall. They referred to several sources such as the Mintel Vehicle Recovery Report from September 2021 which stated that consumers rated the AA as their most trusted, most recommended and favourite brand of those covered by the survey. They said for the last three years, UK drivers had rated AA as the best breakdown service against all other major breakdown service providers according to the “Brand and Market Tracker” study. Furthermore, they were the only provider to be recommended by Which? in 2021, which was the fourth year in a row. Also, Which? specifically referenced the knowledge and courtesy of AA patrols compared to their competitors.
AA said their total revenues for the year ended 31 January 2021 were £967m and the revenue solely from the AA’s roadside business was £799m for the same period. The RAC’s total group revenue for the financial year ending 31 December 2020 was £624m, which meant that AA’s roadside operations alone generated more revenue than the entirety of RAC’s business.
They also said their response times were faster than the RAC, plus they had higher Trustpilot scores. This they believed showed that their service support was greater than that provided by RAC.
In summary, AA said they wanted to demonstrate the wide range of factors that could be used to support the claims. They believed their position as the largest and No.1 could be shown across a range of alternative measures.
3. AA said to facilitate the verification process and ensure ease of access they consolidated all salient information supporting the claims that they were “the UK’s largest breakdown service provider” and the “UK’s number 1”, into a standalone page on their website, with the URL www.theaa.com/about-us/number-1-breakdown. They said although they created a link to that information, the same evidence was disseminated across their website at the time the ad was seen so there were multiple opportunities for consumers to independently verify the claims as the link was not the sole repository of all the information.
AA provided screenshots of their website to demonstrate the consumer journey to verify the claims. They said that although there was no direct link on either the website, or in the customer journey to that webpage, they did not believe it prejudiced consumers, but they said they would ensure the link was embedded where similar claims were made in future.
AA submitted a press ad which they said was seen around the same time as the other ads. At the foot of that ad was a note to a URL, which directed consumers to the standalone verification webpage.
The ASA noted that the text “Get breakdown cover from £6 a month with the UK’s largest breakdown provider” on the breakdown cover webpage appeared next to an image of a driver inside an AA van with text underneath which stated, “More mobile mechanics than any other UK breakdown service (with a 1 indicating a footnote).” We therefore considered in that context, consumers were likely to interpret the claim “the UK’s largest breakdown provider” as referring to the number of patrols AA had to service breakdowns and that AA was the largest UK breakdown provider because they had the highest number of mechanic patrols compared to their competitors in the UK vehicle breakdown insurance market.
We therefore expected that the evidence to substantiate the claim would consist of a comparison of the number of AA mechanics and patrol vehicles with the RAC at the same point in time. The footnote at the bottom of the page stated, “we have more highly skilled mobile mechanics than anyone else […] The AA is the largest UK breakdown provider, with almost 3,000 patrols compared to around 1,800 for the second largest provider in the UK.” The source was stated as being AA’s Staff List dated August 2020 and the RAC website in September 2019. It said that as at those two dates, AA had 2,745 patrols and RAC had 1,800. There was 11 months difference between the dates of the two figures for both companies and we therefore considered that discrepancy between the dates did not enable a like-for-like comparison to be made of the number of patrols both companies had. We also noted that a significant amount of time had passed between the dates of the figures quoted in the footnote and the time the ad was seen in April 2021 and there was no updated information to substantiate the claim.
For those reasons we concluded that the evidence to support the claim that the AA was “the UK’s largest breakdown service” was not adequate and the claim was therefore likely to mislead.
On that point, ad (a) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 3.1 Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so. (Misleading advertising), 3.7 3.7 Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation. (Substantiation) and 3.33 3.33 Marketing communications that include a comparison with an identifiable competitor must not mislead, or be likely to mislead, the consumer about either the advertised product or the competing product. (Comparisons with identifiable competitors).
We noted that the claims “The UK’s number 1 breakdown service provider” in ad (a) on the homepage of the website and “Join the UK’s No.1” on the poster in ad (b) were not accompanied by any explanation as to what made the AA “No.1”. In the absence of such information and in the context of a breakdown service provider, we considered the claims would be understood as a best-selling claim and would generally be interpreted by consumers to mean that the AA had the most members compared to their competitors in the UK vehicle breakdown insurance market.
We understood that the AA divided their members into different categories, with the two main membership bases being “direct” members, i.e. those who had directly purchased AA breakdown cover, and “business to business to customer members” who received AA cover as an add-on benefit to another service.
We noted that the AA said the ads were intended to target consumers who would become direct members of AA’s breakdown services and that they had based the “No. 1” claim on a comparison of direct members. However, we considered that consumers who saw the ads would be unlikely to distinguish between those different types of members and would understand the claim to be about AA’s total membership in comparison with their competitors, particularly as the claims appeared in untargeted media and were not accompanied by text explaining the different membership categories and that the claims were based on direct member figures.
The CAP Code required that before submitting marketing communications for publication, marketers must ensure that they held documentary evidence to prove all claims, whether direct or implied, that were capable of objective substantiation.
AA provided a table with figures for all their members at two specific points in time - April 2021 and October 2021. We understood that the figures supplied for the RAC, which corresponded to April 2021, were taken from an investor presentation dated 11 March 2021, for the financial year which ended on 31 December 2020. The RAC figures which corresponded to October 2021 were taken from an investor report dated 6 September 2021, for the six months ending on 30 June 2021.
Due to the discrepancies in the dates for the figures provided, we considered that the AA did not hold adequate evidence for the RAC’s membership figures to be able to make a like-for-like comparison. We acknowledged the AA’s view that taking into account the RAC’s past performance, they believed it was highly unlikely that the RAC’s membership had grown so that it exceeded that of the AA’s. However, we considered it was not impossible that various factors could have increased or reduced the membership of either company so as to significantly alter the position. In any event, it did not remove the requirement for the AA to hold adequate, up-to-date evidence to support the claims.
Because the evidence provided by the AA was not sufficient, for the reasons set out above, to enable a like-for-like comparison to be made with the RAC, we considered it was not adequate to substantiate the claim that the AA was the “UK’s No.1” breakdown service provider.
For those reasons we concluded the claims “The UK’s number 1 breakdown service provider” in ad (a) and “the UK’s No.1” in ad (b) had not been substantiated and were likely to mislead.
On that point, ads (a) and (b) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 3.1 Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so. (Misleading advertising), 3.7 3.7 Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation. (Substantiation) and 3.33 3.33 Marketing communications that include a comparison with an identifiable competitor must not mislead, or be likely to mislead, the consumer about either the advertised product or the competing product. (Comparisons with identifiable competitors).
The CAP Code required that comparisons with identifiable competitors must objectively compare one or more verifiable features. 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 objective comparison and be able to check the claims were accurate.
In relation to the claim, “the largest breakdown provider” in ad (a), we noted that text directly underneath where the claim appeared on the website stated, “more mobile mechanics than any other UK breakdown service” accompanied by a reference to a numbered footnote at the bottom of the webpage. The source of the figures in the footnote was stated as being the AA Staff List in August 2020 and the RAC website in September 2019. While we noted there was an indication that further information regarding the claim was available, it was not sufficiently clear that this information was the means by which consumers would be able to verify the claim, and the location of the footnote, at the bottom of the page, meant it could have been overlooked by consumers.
The AA data was based on their staff list without further information directing consumers to how to obtain that information, which was unlikely to be accessible in the public domain. The RAC data was based on information found on the RAC website 18 months prior to when the ad was seen, again without direction as to how consumers would be able to acquire that data to check it for themselves. Because of that, we considered ad (a) did not include sufficient information to allow consumers to understand the comparison or check that the claim “the largest breakdown provider” was accurate or include a signpost to direct consumers to that information.In relation to the “number 1 breakdown service provider” claim in ad (a), the AA provided screenshots of the consumer journey. On the webpage below where the claim appeared, text stated, “How our cover works Find out why the AA is the UK’s number 1 in breakdown cover and how to choose the right policy for you” with a “read more” call to action button. When clicked, consumers were taken to a second webpage headed “How our cover works” which provided more information about the types of cover available and what each cover included. At the bottom of that page, text under the heading “Why should I choose the AA?” stated that the AA had been awarded 5 stars by an independent research company and then stated, “we’re the UK’s largest breakdown company, with over 2,700 mobile mechanics” with further information about the benefits of the cover. As stated in Point 2 above, because we considered the “No.1” claim would be understood to mean that the AA had the most members over their competitors in the UK, we considered that information relating to its membership numbers compared to the RAC would need to be provided, or a signpost to where consumers could access such information, to enable consumers to check that the claim was accurate, in order for the claim to be verifiable.
Ad (b) did not contain any information explaining the basis of the “No. 1” claim so that consumers could understand the comparison, or any signpost directing them to where they could access that information, so as to be able to check the accuracy of the claim.
We noted that the AA said they provided a standalone webpage with the URL: the aa.com/about-us/number-1-breakdown. However, because the link to that page was not provided anywhere in ads (a) or (b), or on their website, and it was not obvious where the information could be found, consumers would not be able to access that information if they wished to verify the claim.
We also noted that while the URL appeared to refer to the information regarding the “No.1” claim, it actually contained information regarding the AA being “the UK’s largest provider of breakdown cover” so was not relevant to the “No. 1” claims in ads (a) and (b). We therefore considered that the information was insufficient to allow the claims to be verified and, as noted above, had not been clearly and immediately signposted.
For those reasons we concluded the claims in ads (a) and (b) were not verifiable.
On that point, the ads breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 3.35 3.35 They must objectively compare one or more material, relevant, verifiable and representative feature of those products, which may include price. (Comparisons with identifiable competitors).
The claims must not appear again in their current forms. We told AA Ltd to ensure that they held adequate evidence to support comparative claims; that the basis of any comparison was presented clearly; and that ads provided sufficient information to enable consumers to verify comparisons with identifiable competitors or signposted consumers to such information.