Summary of Council decision:
Five issues were investigated, all of which were upheld.
Three Instagram stories for lead generation company Debt Slayers, seen in December 2020 and January 2021:
a. A story on Helen Briggs' Instagram account, seen on 10 December 2020, featured a link to Debt Slayers' website. Swiping up on the posts took consumers to Debt Slayers’ website.
b. A story on Myles Barnett's Instagram account, seen on 19 January 2021, in which he stated, "One of my friends just got 81 percent of his debt wiped off. So if you’ve got debt above £5,000 – it could be credit cards, catalogues, car finance … a loan, anything like that, swipe up, there’s more information on there … I know it’s weird times at the moment and everyone’s finances have taken a hit. So swipe up, and you can wipe off a big, big chunk of your debt”. Swiping up on the story took consumers to the same website as ad (a).
c. A story on Chloe Ferry's Instagram account, seen on 20 January 2021, featured Debt Slayers’ logo and text that stated “IF YOU KNOW SOMEONE WHO IS OVER £5,000+ IN DEBT … THAT COULD BE THE FOLLOWING; [sic] CAR FINANCE, CREDIT CARDS, CATALOGUES, PAYDAY LOANS, PLUS A BUNCH MORE+ … THIS IS A NEW FULLY REGULATED SCHEME THAT CAN HELP YOU WRITE OFF 85% OF THE DEBT! … SWIPE UP NOW!” Swiping up on the story took consumers to the same website as ad (a).
The ASA received three complaints:
1. Two complainants challenged whether the posts in ad (a) and ad (b) were obviously identifiable as marketing communications.
2. Two complainants challenged whether ads (b) and (c) exaggerated the ease with which debts could be reduced.
3. All three complainants challenged whether the ads made clear the risks associated with an Individual Voluntary Arrangement (IVA).
The ASA challenged whether:
4. the post in ad (c) was obviously identifiable as a marketing communication; and
5. ads (b) and (c) were misleading, because they suggested that Debt Slayers provided the service themselves and did not make clear that they passed on leads.
Ashteck Media Ltd t/a Debt Slayers said that they had informal agreements with Ms Briggs, Mr Barnett, and Ms Ferry to produce the relevant Instagram posts. Consumers who contacted Debt Slayers as a result of the posts were made aware of the risks and fees associated with IVAs. They said the third parties, to whom they provided leads, also made consumers aware of those fees and risks. Since the posts were made, they had engaged with a compliance company that had conducted a review of Debt Slayers’ promotions. As a result of that review they had amended the wording of their marketing campaigns to ensure it was clear to consumers that they passed on leads to third parties rather than providing debt management services themselves. They said that they had also ceased using influencers to promote their service. Helen Briggs’ agent said that Ms Briggs’ future marketing communications would be properly labelled. The agent for Myles Barnett and Chloe Ferry said that they had discussions with Debt Slayers prior to the posts being arranged and made, and they had also reviewed Debt Slayers’ website before entering into an agreement with them. They accepted that the wording of the posts was potentially in breach of the Code. They said that they would not work with IVA, debt lead or debt management services in the future.
1. & 4. Upheld
The CAP Code stated that marketing communications must be obviously identifiable as such. The ASA understood that Miss Briggs, Mr Barnett, and Miss Ferry had informal commercial relationships with Debt Slayers that covered the posts under investigation. We understood that Debt Slayers had dictated the contents of the posts and that the influencers had been remunerated for making the posts. We therefore considered that the relevant posts fell within the remit of the CAP Code and that the parties were jointly responsible for ensuring that promotional activity conducted was compliant with the CAP Code. However, there was nothing in the posts, such as “#ad” displayed clearly, that made clear to consumers they were ads. We therefore concluded that they were not obviously identifiable as marketing communications and breached the Code.
On those points, ads (a), (b), and (c) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 2.1 2.1 Marketing communications must be obviously identifiable as such. (Recognition of marketing communications).
We considered that consumers would understand the claims, "One of my friends just got 81 percent of his debt wiped off … So swipe up, and you can wipe off a big, big chunk of your debt” in ad (a), and “THIS IS A NEW FULLY REGULATED SCHEME THAT CAN HELP YOU WRITE OFF 85% OF THE DEBT!” in ad (b) to mean that by contacting Debt Slayers, consumers would be able to begin to resolve their debt problems immediately. In reality, however, Debt Slayers would only pass consumers’ details on to a third party, after which creditors would need to agree to consumers taking out an IVA and a payment schedule would need to be drawn up. We considered the claims over-simplified the process and exaggerated the speed and ease with which debts could be reduced. We therefore concluded that the ads were misleading.
On that point, ads (b) and (c) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 3.1 3.1 Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so. (Misleading advertising).
We noted that there was no mention in ads (a), (b) or (c) of any of the risks or fees associated with an IVA. We considered the ads should have made consumers aware before they made any enquiries that there were risks associated with the form of debt support Debt Slayers would put them forward for. While we acknowledged Debt Slayers’ assurance that their future ads would highlight the risks and fees associated with the services they provided, because the ads under investigation did not make those risks and fees clear, we concluded that they were misleading.
On that point, ads (a), (b), and (c) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules
Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so.
Marketing communications must not mislead the consumer by omitting material information. They must not mislead by hiding material information or presenting it in an unclear, unintelligible, ambiguous or untimely manner.
Material information is information that the consumer needs to make informed decisions in relation to a product. Whether the omission or presentation of material information is likely to mislead the consumer depends on the context, the medium and, if the medium of the marketing communication is constrained by time or space, the measures that the marketer takes to make that information available to the consumer by other means. (Misleading advertising).
We considered that the claims, "One of my friends just got 81 percent of his debt wiped off … So swipe up, and you can wipe off a big, big chunk of your debt” in ad (b), and “…WRITE OFF 85% OF THE DEBT! … SWIPE UP NOW” in ad (c), both of which linked to Debt Slayers’ website, would be interpreted by consumers to mean that Debt Slayers provided debt counselling themselves and that they would deal with the entire process, from start to finish, of consumers’ debt problems. We understood that Debt Slayers was a lead-generating company that passed on consumers’ details to third-party insolvency practitioners, rather than them providing debt counselling or debt management services. While we acknowledged Debt Slayers’ assurance that their future ads would make clear that they were a lead-generating company, but at the time ads (b) and (c) were seen, they did not state that and we considered it was not clear from the presentation of the ads that this was Debt Slayers’ commercial intent. We therefore concluded the ads were misleading.
On that point, ads (b) and (c) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 2.3 2.3 Marketing communications must not falsely claim or imply that the marketer is acting as a consumer or for purposes outside its trade, business, craft or profession; marketing communications must make clear their commercial intent, if that is not obvious from the context. (Recognition of marketing communications) and 3.1 3.1 Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so. (Misleading advertising).
The ads must not appear again in the form complained about. We told Ashteck Media Ltd t/a Debt Slayers to ensure their ads did not exaggerate the speed or ease with which debts could be reduced; that they made risks and fees of IVAs and other debt management services clear; and that they made clear that they passed on enquirers’ details to third parties and did not provide the service themselves. We also told Ashteck Media Ltd, Helen Briggs, Myles Barnett, and Chloe Ferry to ensure that ads were obviously identifiable as marketing communications in future; for example, by including a clear identifier such as “#ad”.