a. A paid-for display ad seen via the Taboola network and seen on www.thescottishsun.co.uk in February 2020 featured an image of a woman wearing a face mask covering her nose and mouth. Text stated “New Nano Tech Face Mask is Selling Out Fast in United Kingdom”. Smaller text stated “OXYBREATH PRO”. The ad linked to a landing page.
b. A web page on www.breakthroughtrend.com, linked from ad (a), resembled a news article and stated “This New Nano Tech Face Mask is Selling Out Fast in United Kingdom = Southwark”. Further text stated “Why United Kingdom = Southwark Residents are in a Mad Rush to Get this Face Mask … The World Health Organization has recently declared the China coronavirus a global health emergency. What’s worse is that cases of the coronavirus have jumped tenfold. The death toll is 493 and rising. It would be an understatement to say that there is a growing sense of panic. The best advice I’ve heard is to stay calm and take practical [sic] measures to protect yourself. One of the best ways to protect yourself is to get a high quality facemask that can protect you from: viruses, bacteria [sic], and other air pollutants. A quick internet search shows face masks are already selling out fast. Its [sic] in headline after headline”. This was followed by a screenshot of headlines about face masks selling out in different places.
Further text stated “Here’s what’s unfortunately [sic]: there [sic] a lot of face masks out there that are not that effective. That is, they won’t protect you from getting sick. However, now there’s a new breakthrough nano tech face mask that delivers an extraordinary level of protection … it’s called Oxybreath Pro, and it’s the first face mask of it’s [sic] kind. This mask provides unparallelled [sic] protection when you need it most”. The page went on to describe the attributes of the mask. Text further down the page stated “However, please be understand [sic] that because of extremely high demand inventory is selling out VERY FAST. And you must act quick [sic] to secure your Oxybreath Pro mask, before it’s sold out … If it’s still in stock, here [sic] where you can get yours”. This was followed by a link to a website where consumers could purchase the products.
c. A paid-for display ad shown via the Outbrain network and seen on www.cnn.com in February 2020 featured an image of a woman wearing a face mask covering her nose and mouth. Text stated “Can Wearing a Face Mask Protect You From Catching a Virus?”. The ad linked to a landing page.
d. A web page on www.diseaseprevention.world, linked to from ad (c), resembled a news article and stated “Just Released: The Mask That Will Keep Your Mind More At Ease During The Spread of The New Virus”. Further text stated “Airborne viruses have been spreading around the world in [sic] the speed of light … the new virus is spreading so fast it has become barely controllable … any extra layer of protection is beneficial in order to decrease your chances of getting infected … simple surgical masks do not protect anyone from catching or spreading a virus, and proper masks have quickly ran [sic] out of stock. So what can we do if there are no masks available during the time that the infection toll is rising every minute? When everything else seems to be out of stock, there’s still one effective solution that is available to get online from the convenience of your home: OxyBreath Pro! ... Peace of mind is priceless during this terrifying time – get Oxybreath Pro now while it’s still available!”. Further text described the attributes of the mask, including testimonials, and linked to a website where consumers could purchase the product.
e. A web page on www.hyperstech.com, linked to from ads (b) and (d), allowed consumers to place orders for the Oxybreath Pro mask.
The ASA challenged whether the ads were misleading, irresponsible and scaremongering.
Novads OU did not respond to the ASA's enquiries.
The ASA was concerned by Novads OU's lack of response and apparent disregard for the Code, which was a breach of CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 1.7 (Unreasonable delay). We reminded them of their responsibility to provide a substantive response to our enquiries and told them to do so in future.
The ads were seen in the context of widespread news coverage of a developing major outbreak of novel coronavirus 2019-nCov, or COVID-19, in China, with a small number of cases (contracted overseas) having already been confirmed in the UK. The ASA considered that consumers would understand from the ads that the Oxybreath Pro mask could help protect them from being infected by the coronavirus.
We noted that Public Health England did not recommend the use of face masks as a means of protection from coronavirus. We understood there was very little evidence of widespread benefit from their use outside of clinical settings, and that prolonged use of masks was likely to reduce compliance with good universal hygiene behaviours that were recommended to help stop the spread of infectious diseases (including coronavirus), such as frequent hand washing and avoiding touching the eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
Ad (b) referred to the death toll from coronavirus and “a growing sense of panic”. It also stated “one of the best ways to protect yourself if to get a high quality facemask that can protect you from: viruses, bateria [sic] and other air pollutants”, before describing the Oxybreath Pro product as being of better quality and offering a higher level of protection than many other masks available.
Ad (d) similarly used alarmist language, such as referring to the spread of the virus as being “barely controllable” and “this terrifying time”. Both landing pages made repeated references to there being high demand for the masks and the likelihood of stock selling out quickly. We considered that was likely to exploit people’s fears regarding the coronavirus outbreak. Particularly in a context where the relevant public health authority had not recommended face masks as a means of the public protecting themselves from coronavirus, we considered that the ads were misleading, irresponsible and likely to cause fear without justifiable reason.
We concluded that the ads breached the Code. Ads (a), (b), (c), (d) and (e) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 1.3 1.3 Advertisements must comply with the law and broadcasters must make that a condition of acceptance. (Social responsibility), 3.1 3.1 Advertisements must not materially mislead or be likely to do so. (Misleading advertising) and 4.2 4.2 Advertisements must not cause serious or widespread offence against generally accepted moral, social or cultural standards. (Harm & offence).
The ads should not appear again. We told Novads OU t/a Oxybreath Pro to ensure they did not state or imply that their product could protect consumers from coronavirus and to ensure their ads did not cause fear without justifiable reason.