A circular for Principal Security Consultants Ltd, advertising residential security services, received on 22 February 2016. Text stated “Please be aware of these or similar symbols around your property, burglars are marking potential targets with them”, alongside eight symbols were captioned: “Vulnerable female, easily conned”; “Already been burgled”; “Alarmed House”; “Nothing worth stealing”; “Nervous and afraid”; “Too risky”; “Good target”; and “Wealthy owner”.
The complainant challenged whether the claim “Please be aware of these or similar symbols around your property, burglars are marking potential targets with them” was likely to cause fear or distress and could be substantiated.
Principal Security Consultants Ltd stated that their intention was to create awareness and to educate members of the public as to what the symbols meant and they were not intended to cause alarm or panic. The advertiser stated that the leaflets could be used by consumers for reference purposes, while promoting their business.
They explained that this information was obtained from several newspaper articles, which made references to Surrey Police, Devonshire Police, West Yorkshire Police and Lanarkshire Police Division, who were said to be aware of the use of the symbols. They said they based their research on the information that was available in the press at the time of printing their leaflets.
The ASA noted that the advertiser said their intention was to create awareness of the symbols used by burglars. We considered that the claims would be understood by recipients as meaning that these symbols indicated that burglars were active in the areas where they were seen and that this could cause distress and alarm, particularly to more vulnerable recipients. We considered that consumers may, as a result of becoming informed of the possibility of their property having being marked by burglars, be more inclined to purchase the security services being promoted.
We acknowledged the various news articles referred to by the advertiser which reported on the symbols used by burglars. We considered the reports, however, to be variations of the same story largely based on hearsay and anecdotal evidence with no reference to objective evidence that the symbols were used by burglars to mark properties. We noted that the advertiser had based the claims on the information available in the press at the time of printing, but we considered that they did not have any objective evidence to support those claims. We also noted that subsequent news articles from early 2016 described the use of such symbols and codes by burglars as an urban myth and included quotes from two police forces that indicated that there was no evidence to show that the symbols were linked to anything other than innocent and explainable activities. We therefore considered that there was a lack of robust evidence to substantiate the claim that burglars were actually using these symbols to mark their targets.
We considered that the use of the symbols in the circular were an appeal to fear which, due to the lack of substantive evidence to show that the symbols were actually being used by burglars to mark properties, was not sufficiently justified in this context. We concluded that the claims had not been substantiated and were misleading and likely to cause fear or distress without justifiable reason.
The ad 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 4.2 4.2 Marketing communications must not cause fear or distress without justifiable reason; if it can be justified, the fear or distress should not be excessive. Marketers must not use a shocking claim or image merely to attract attention. (Harm and offence).
The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told Principal Security Consultants Ltd to ensure that any future ads would not cause fear or distress without justifiable reason and that any claims used were based on robust evidence.