Summary of Council decision:Two issues were investigated, one of which was Upheld, the other Not upheld.
Ad descriptionA poster ad for campaign group Banks Claims Group on the A23, south Croydon, seen on 24 December 2018. The ad depicted the front page of a fictional newspaper called “The Need To Know News” and contained the logos of three banks: NatWest, Ulster Bank, RBS, the latter of which had illustrated red blood dripping from it. On the left side of the ad text stated “Did you know? [NatWest, Ulster Bank and RBS] Caused: Austerity, Suicides*, Bank’s Crimes [sic], Economic Destruction”. On the right side of the ad text stated “MAY BOOBED COVER UP! GRG Victims contact: [email protected]”. Text in a circle at the side of the ad stated “READ REVOLT ACT CLAIM”. A footnote at the bottom of the ad stated “*Source ‘Rope – Sometimes you need to let CUSTOMERS HANG themselves’ RBS internal staff memo ‘Just Hit Budget!’ and ‘Victory!’ emails sent even when customers died”.
One complainant challenged whether the ad was:
1. misleading and could be substantiated; and2. likely to cause serious or widespread offence.
Banks Claims Group Ltd t/a Banks Claims Group (BCG) did not respond to the complaint directly, other than in an email (with no individual sender details) stating that Mr Neil Mitchell had produced and funded the poster in a personal capacity. Mr Mitchell explained that he was the founder of BCG but that he had produced, hung and funded the poster in a personal capacity and therefore believed that he rather than BCG should be identified as the subject of the ASA’s investigation. He said he used the BCG email address on the poster because that was how everyone from banks crimes victims, lawyers, media, cross party MPs and others corresponded with him.Mr Mitchell said the ad was placed for serious reasons, and not to discredit the RBS brand. He included reference to documents now in the public domain, from a cache of 10,000 RBS whistle-blower files given to the BBC in October 2016 which included “talk of giving customers enough rope to hang themselves”, among other statements contained in RBS emails. Mr Mitchell referred to the FCA’s (Financial Conduct Authority) S166 report that reviewed the GRG scandal, a trailer for a film that addressed various banking scandals, offered to provide suicide notes, witness testimonies and interviews with families of suicide victims. He said that media channels had exposed RBS and referred to an FCA report that he said documented wrongdoing at RBS. Mr Mitchell said the poster and the use of the red blood dripping was based on facts and said he had the backing of 60,000 British businesses. He said there had been five three-hour debates in Parliament on RBS misconduct, including references to suicides. The owner of the billboard, who was also a director of Banks Claims Group Ltd, said that Mr Mitchell was the legal entity who had purchased the poster space, and that it was a public interest ad warning of the attitude of the parent company and its subsidiaries.
The ASA noted the argument that the poster had been placed by Mr Mitchell and that he, and not BCG, was the originator of the ad and that, as a result, he believed that he alone should be named as the subject of the ASA investigation. We also understood that, at the time the ad appeared, Mr Mitchell was in litigation with the FCA to seek to require it to re-open a decision not to impose disciplinary action on RBS and its senior managers in respect of the actions of GRG. We noted the ad invited “victims” of GRG to contact an email address and included a call to action, “Read Revolt Act Claim”, which we understood to be a reference to how people who saw the ad should sign up to the group litigation organised by BCG.
The corresponding website described Mr Mitchell as “Founder & Spokesman” of BCG and described the purpose of the company as being “to get ALL victims of RBS and Lloyds who apply and are registered on the [BCG] site proper levels of Compensation and to enable us to make targeted individuals and the banks pay”. We further noted that Mr Mitchell was listed at Companies House as a person with significant control of Banks Claims Group Ltd, given that a company of which he was the sole shareholder (Conflict Management Group Ltd) owned all the share capital in Banks Claims Group Ltd. In addition we understood that the poster site owner was a director of Banks Claims Group Ltd.
For those reasons we considered that the ad was an ad for Banks Claims Group Ltd as well as Mr Mitchell.
We noted that the ad was presented as a news item. It referred to various banks that were part of the RBS Group and “GRG victims”. We understood that this was a reference to the RBS Group’s business support group, the Global Restructuring Group, although this would not be readily apparent to most readers.
We understood that between 2008 and 2013 there had been widespread inappropriate treatment of SME customers by GRG which was likely to have caused some of them material financial distress. Separately, we understood that the RBS Group had received significant government funds in 2008 as part of a wider bailout package provided to rescue the UK banking system. We considered the claims that the RBS Group had “caused Austerity, Suicides*, Bank’s Crimes [sic], Economic Destruction” were objective claims which were likely to influence the perception of GRG victims and of readers generally as to the credibility of the RBS Group generally and about the scale of wrongdoing by GRG.
Although the ad related to conduct some years prior, we considered that some readers would still be deterred from banking with RBS/NatWest/Ulster Bank. More specifically the claims were likely to influence GRG victims’ views about the likelihood of success of any legal claim against those institutions that they might make and their decision about whether they should enquire further by contacting BCG.
We considered that the claims that the RBS Group had caused “Austerity” and “Economic Destruction” were likely to be interpreted to mean that the bailout by the government of RBS Group in 2008 was one of the reasons for the subsequent government policy of significant spending cuts after 2010. While we understood that there were many reasons for the policy of austerity, we considered that it was reasonable to suggest that there was a relationship between the cost to the public purse of the bailout and the subsequent need to reduce government spending. For those reasons we considered that the claim was unlikely to mislead.
We then assessed the claim that the institutions listed had “caused … Bank’s Crimes”. While we considered that the syntax of that statement made its meaning unclear we considered that readers would be likely to infer that either RBS Group or its managers had been convicted of criminal offences as a result of the GRG fallout, which we understood was not the case. We therefore concluded the claim was likely to mislead.
We then considered the claim that the RBS Group had caused “suicides” which we noted was linked with an asterisk to small print which referred to internal GRG emails. While we considered that readers would appreciate that the GRG fallout would have had significant personal impacts on those affected we considered that readers were still likely to assume from the claim (which included dripping blood) that there had been documented cases of people taking their own lives as a result of the impact of their treatment by GRG. For that reason we considered that BCG needed to provide us with substantiation for that claim. We understood that GRG’s treatment of some businesses had caused significant financial distress to individuals affected. However, we were not aware – either from the advertiser’s response or the material in the public domain that we reviewed – of specific cases of people taking their own lives where their treatment by GRG was documented as a significant factor; for example, by a coroner or other official investigation.
We also assessed the GRG internal staff memo from 2009/10 quoted in the footnote, which included text such as “Rope: Sometimes you need to let customers hang themselves. You have then gained their trust and they know what’s coming when they fail to deliver”. While we considered that did not reflect well on GRG, we did not consider that it was advice to push customers to suicide. We therefore considered that the claim that the RBS group has caused “suicides” had not been substantiated and was therefore likely to mislead.
On that point the ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 (Misleading advertising) and 3.7 (Substantiation).
2. Not upheld
The CAP Code required ads not to contain anything that was likely to cause serious or widespread offence. For the reasons given above we considered that readers were likely to understand the ad as making claims about the activities of GRG. We considered that GRG victims, the most targeted audience of the ad, were likely to already have a poor opinion of the banks mentioned and were unlikely to find claims about wrongdoing by those institutions to be seriously offensive. We considered that the more general audience who saw the ad might find the ad overall to be provocative and the references to suicides in particular to be distasteful, particularly as the RBS logo was dripping in blood, but we did not consider that it was likely to cause serious or widespread offence.On that point we investigated the ad under CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 4.1 (Harm and offence) but did not find it in breach.
The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told Banks Claims Group Ltd and Mr Mitchell not to claim that the actions of institutions had caused people to commit suicide or had committed crimes unless they held adequate substantiation to support such a claim.