Summary of Council decision:
Three issues were investigated, all of which were Upheld.
A direct mailing for and advertorials in The Parliamentary Review:
a. A direct mail ad for The Parliamentary Review, received in May 2019, was addressed to the complainant. The letterhead stated "RT HON THE LORD PICKLES", followed by the registered address of Westminster Publications Ltd. Text stated "I am writing regarding The Parliamentary Review, a series of documents that are based around individual industry sectors. The 2018/19 documents were introduced by the Prime Minister and contained articles from a range of large organisations, SMEs and small, niche businesses from across the country. The idea is to share knowledge and best practice in an attempt to raise standards. I would like to invite [organisation] to be one of the representatives for 2019/20. If you do choose to be involved, you will be writing 1,000 words about the challenges you have faced, how you have responded to them and your hopes for the future. Despite carrying forewords from senior cabinet figures, the Review is fiercely independent and, as such, you would have full freedom to express yourself entirely as you wish. My co-chairman Lord Blunkett and I will also invite you to our annual gala in March 2020, once the document is released, for an evening to celebrate hard work and leadership. Previously, the guest speakers and attendees have included Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Tony Blair, as well as Frank Lampard and Jonny Wilkinson. For the moment, please call my colleague [name] on [telephone number]. He will be able to explain the whole process to you. I would be grateful for a prompt response". The letter was signed by Rt Hon the Lord Pickles.
b. Articles contributed by different organisations, including SMEs, larger businesses and charities, in The Parliamentary Review 2017‒2018, viewed online at www.theparliamentaryreview.co.uk in May 2019. The Parliamentary Review was divided into a number of different publications themed by sector, for example “Business Services”, “Healthcare and Pharmaceutical” and “Education”. In addition to the articles, each publication included a foreword by the Rt Hon Theresa May MP, a message from Lord Pickles and Lord Blunkett, a foreword by political journalist Andrew Neil, forewords by other figures in the sector, and a review of the year relevant to the sector. At the end of the publication, there was a review of the year in Parliament.
Two complainants, who understood that organisations paid a fee to be included in the publication, challenged whether:
1. ad (a) was obviously identifiable as a marketing communication;
2. ad (a) misleadingly implied that The Parliamentary Review was an official government publication; and
3. ad (b) was obviously identifiable as a marketing communication.
1. Westminster Publications Ltd said that it was not their intention to mislead consumers. They said that they were willing to add additional wording to future mailings stating “The Parliamentary Review is wholly owned by Westminster Publications Ltd. It is independent of government and entirely funded by the organisations who appear in it”.
2. Westminster Publications said that they did not believe ad (a) suggested that The Parliamentary Review was officially endorsed by a government body. They said that no mention of a government body was made in the mailing, which clearly contained their company registration number. They said the letters were signed by Lord Pickles in his personal capacity as Chairman of the magazine. Westminster Publications believed that upholding the complaint on this ground would suggest that no former politicians were allowed to participate in a commercial venture outside their office, which clearly could not be the case. They said the 2018 edition of The Parliamentary Review did contain a foreword from the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, but that was equally her choice to participate.
They said they secured contributions not only from politicians but also from prominent figures from a wide range of fields, who were unlikely to be seen as misleading consumers in this regard or acting on behalf of the government.
3. Westminster Publications said they did not believe that the articles submitted by businesses and other organisations to The Parliamentary Review were advertorial content that was subject to the CAP Code. They said that the articles did not fall within any of the forms of communication listed in Part I of the Introduction to the CAP Code, because the content was controlled by The Parliamentary Review (the publisher) and not the contributing organisation. They said that the sponsored articles did not include any agreement as to what the articles would say: editorial guidelines were sent to all contributors and clearly stated that The Parliamentary Review retained editorial control over the final published piece. They employed a team of editors who were responsible for ensuring that the finished piece met their standards. They provided a copy of the editorial guidelines.
The Code stated that marketing communications must be identifiable as such. This meant that consumers should be able to tell from the envelope itself that the mailing was a marketing communication.
The mailing came in an envelope that included text stating “The Office of Rt Hon the Lord Pickles” and the return address. We considered there was nothing on the envelope which indicated to recipients that it contained a marketing communication, and therefore it would not be obviously identifiable as such, regardless of the content of the letter itself. The letter was addressed to the recipient by name and appeared on headed notepaper. There was no explicit statement indicating that the letter was a marketing communication. The letter stated that recipients’ organisations were being “invited” to contribute and there was nothing to indicate that they would need to pay to be featured in The Parliamentary Review. We considered that recipients would be likely to understand that their organisation had been selected on the basis of merit to contribute to the publication. The limited company name appeared in the footer, however, we did not consider that was sufficient to counteract that overall impression. We acknowledged Westminster Publications’ suggestion that they amend the letter to state “The Parliamentary Review is wholly owned by Westminster Publications Ltd. It is independent of government and entirely funded by the organisations who appear in it”. However, we considered that amendment would not be sufficient to ensure the ad was obviously identifiable as a marketing communication in the absence of an explicit statement that the letter was an ad.
We concluded that ad (a) was not obviously identifiable as a marketing communication and therefore breached the Code. On that point, ad (a) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 2.1 (Recognition of marketing communications).
Text on the envelope and letterhead indicated that it came from Lord Pickles, a former politician, and the letter mentioned that the foreword of The Parliamentary Review was written by the Prime Minister. Furthermore we considered that the name, “The Parliamentary Review”, suggested that the publication was associated with the government. We considered that the overall impression of the origin of the mailing was ambiguous and recipients were likely to understand that The Parliamentary Review was an official government publication, which was not the case.
We concluded that the ad was misleading and breached the Code. On that point, ad (a) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 and 3.3 (Misleading advertising).
The ASA first assessed whether the articles in The Parliamentary Review were advertorials, and accordingly within the remit of the CAP Code. The Code defined an advertorial as an advertisement feature, where the content was controlled by the marketer, not the publisher, and was disseminated in exchange for payment or another reciprocal relationship. We noted that Westminster Publications believed the articles were not advertorials because the content was controlled by Westminster Publications rather than the organisation that contributed the article. We understood that Westminster Publications applied editorial guidelines and informed contributors that The Parliamentary Review retained editorial control over the published piece. However, the guidelines provided to us related to stylistic considerations rather than content. We did not consider that simply proofreading or editing a piece for house style was in line with the definition of editorial control intended by the Code. Furthermore, we noted that the website FAQs stated “The organisations are also free to use the Review, and their article within it, to promote themselves to a wide audience”, while the mailing (ad (a)) stated “the Review is fiercely independent and, as such, you would have full freedom to express yourself entirely as you wish”. We considered that suggested that contributors retained control over the content of their articles.
We concluded that the articles contributed by paying parties to The Parliamentary Review met the definition of an advertorial and therefore fell within the remit of the CAP Code. We noted that the publication did not include any text to make clear that the advertorials were advertising.
We therefore considered that the advertorials` breached the Code. On that point, ad (b) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 2.1 and 2.4 (Recognition of marketing communications).
The ads must not appear again in the forms complained about. We told Westminster Publications Ltd to ensure that their marketing communications were obviously identifiable as such. We also told them to ensure they did not imply that The Parliamentary Review was an official government publication.