Use of Footnotes - A Timely Reminder
Two recent ASA adjudications serve as timely reminders that advertisers must be careful in their use of footnotes that qualify the claims being made in the main body of an advertisement.
During February both B&Q and British Telecommunications had complaints upheld against them on the basis that the small print at the bottom of their ads contained such significant information that it was likely to affect the consumer's understanding of the headline claim and therefore should either have been made more prominent or should have been contained within the main body of the ad. This serves as a timely reminder that footnotes have their limitations and should only be used to clarify the main claims being made or to provide limited qualifications to them. Footnotes should not be used to impose significant restrictions upon the headline claim or to change materially a consumer's understanding of that claim.
The B&Q ad promoted an offer for loft insulation under the headline "Insulate your loft for only £25*". The footnote beneath the main copy qualified the offer by stating "* Based on topping up existing insulation by 170mm in a typical 44 m2 3 bed semi-detached home". A complainant queried whether the claim "insulate your loft for only £25*" was misleading as it implied that consumers could insulate their loft from scratch for £25 whereas in practice the advertised price could only be achieved if the product was used to top-up existing insulation. In their response, B&Q stated that they believed the inclusion of qualifying small print at the bottom of the ad, linked to the headline claim by way of an asterisk, avoided any ambiguity. However, the ASA concluded that readers would interpret the headline claim to mean that they could fully insulate their loft with the advertised product for £25. Although the small print at the bottom of the ad did explain that the headline claim referred to topping up a consumer's existing insulation it was thought that this was significant information likely to affect readers understanding of the headline claim and should therefore have been made in the body of the ad. Because this was not done, the ASA concluded that the claim was misleading. Even use of an asterisk beside the headline claim was insufficient to save this footnote.
The complaint against BT related to a comparative ad with a headline "Save up to £211 with BT compared to Sky". The small print at the bottom of the ad stated that the comparison was between BT's 24 month contract and Sky's 12 month contract. Sky challenged the ad on the basis that it was misleading because it was comparing a 24 month contract with a 12 month contract and therefore not comparing like for like products. In its defence, BT claimed that its 24 month contract product was the nearest comparable product to Sky’s 12 month contract and that they took steps to ensure that viewers were not misled on this point by stating the difference in a lengthy footnote. The ASA accepted that BT's 24 month contract package was the nearest comparable product to Sky's 12 month contract. The ASA also accepted that the footnote did make this difference apparent. However, because the footnote contained a significant qualification that could affect consumers' understanding of the headline savings claim the ASA considered that it should have been made more prominent. In particular, the qualification failed because it was in a footnote and not in the body copy or immediately below the savings claim and therefore it was likely to mislead readers.
Both of these recent adjudications serve to illustrate the care that advertisers must take when using footnotes and disclaimers. It is not sufficient to make a bold headline claim and then rely upon a contradictory or heavily qualified footnote to make the claim acceptable.