A poster, two press ads, two TV ads and a radio ad encouraged consumers either to switch back to British Gas (in the case of the TV ads) or remain with British Gas (in the case of the poster, press and radio ads).
a. The poster was headlined "Walk away from British Gas and wave goodbye to our engineers". Small print stated "For all domestic British Gas customers and vulnerable customers in emergencies. Conditions apply."
b. One press ad carried the same headline as the poster. The body copy stated "British Gas is the only energy company with its own national force of expert engineers ... Every 60 seconds someone switches back to British Gas ... If you're in any doubt you're getting our best deal call us on ..." The small print was the same as on the poster except that it contained the additional text "Calls may be monitored and recorded for quality assurance".
c. The other press ad was headlined "If you've got a problem, you can call our electrical engineers. If you're not a British Gas energy customer you could have two problems." Text below stated "British Gas is the only energy company with its own national force of expert electrical engineers." The small print was the same as on the other press ad.
d. One TV ad featured a cartoon-like blue flame, which recounted the experiences of a British Gas customer; during the ad various cartoon figures illustrated those experiences. Onscreen text at the start of the ad stated "Michelle's true story". The blue flame said "I left British Gas because a friend advised me that I was paying too much. It was all fine until I had a problem with the boiler - didn't have a clue what to do. Before I knew it I ended up having three plumbers; the work cost me over 400 GBP. So I went back to British Gas, happy to have that extra service where they come out if there's a problem. I feel safe with them and I wouldn't change again." The voiceover then said "Every 60 seconds someone switches back to British Gas." During the ad the onscreen text stated "For all domestic British Gas customers and vulnerable customers in emergencies. Conditions apply" and "Calls may be monitored and/or recorded for quality assurance."
e. The other TV ad was almost identical except that it referred to Scottish Gas, was spoken in a Scottish accent and featured the onscreen text "A true customer story. Told by an actor" rather than "Michelle's true story".
f. The radio ad featured a salesman trying to convince a female British Gas customer to switch to Southern Electric. The salesman said "We can save you money", to which the woman responded "Do you offer free evening and weekend phone calls? And what about exclusive access to 5,000 British Gas engineers?" The man replied "Well, uh, no" and the woman continued "Oh, okay, I get it. You're cheaper. How much?" The man then said "one pound a year, madam". The voiceover said "Do you want to lose all your British Gas benefits for a pound a year? If you've any doubts whether you're getting the best deal possible call ¢€¦Conditions apply. Free 01 and 02 calls. BT line required. Continue to pay line rental. One pound compares our prices with Southern Electric for monthly direct debit at average consumption for gas and electricity."
1. E.ON, Scottish Power, NPower, EDF Energy and members of the public objected that the TV ads, the two press ads and the poster were misleading and used an undue appeal to fear, because they implied non-British Gas customers did not have access to British Gas engineers. They said that consumers did not need to have their gas or electricity supplied by British Gas in order to use British Gas engineers. Some complainants said that, for example, consumers could have a maintenance contract with British Gas, which gave them access to British Gas engineers, without having their gas supplied by British Gas.
2. Scottish and Southern Energy and members of the public objected that the television ads were misleading, because they implied that British Gas offered an inclusive central heating maintenance service as part of supplying gas to their customers. They said the TV ads implied 'Michelle' would have had her boiler fixed free of charge had she been with British Gas.
3. Scottish and Southern Energy objected to the radio ad on the same basis as point 2 above.
4. Plumbers and CORGI registered gas engineers objected that the TV ads were offensive and denigratory, because they implied that non-British Gas engineers were incompetent and overcharged. Several of them said that the advertisements implied non-British Gas engineers were 'rogues' and 'cowboys'.
5. Scottish and Southern Energy objected to the radio ad and the claim that the saving available for customers who switched from British Gas to Southern Electric was "one pound a year". They said the advertisement was transmitted on The Eagle FM, a local radio station that broadcast in an area where switching from British Gas to Southern Electric would entail a saving higher than the "one pound" stated in the ad. They objected that the claim was misleading.
Codes Section: 3.1, 6.1, 7.1, 9.1 (Ed 11)
1. Complaints upheld
British Gas said the TV ads, the two press ads and the poster were part of a campaign designed to highlight the benefits of being a British Gas customer. They explained that there were two ways in which British Gas customers could have access to British Gas engineers. One way was through the "On Call Assistance" product (for one off repairs) and the other was through a "HomeCare" services agreement (for ongoing maintenance).
British Gas said the "On Call Assistance" product was a service that offered one-off repairs for a fixed fee. They said the product was only available to British Gas customers. In most cases, those customers would have an energy product supplied by British Gas, although "On Call Assistance" was also available to British Gas customers who had non-energy products, such as "home security". The only non-British Gas customers who could access "On Call Assistance" were vulnerable people in emergency situations.
British Gas said their "HomeCare" service was a maintenance contract, where "HomeCare" customers had an ongoing contractual relationship with British Gas. They said those customers were also considered to be British Gas customers and would have access to engineers as part of that contract. British Gas said the ads did not imply that consumers had to be British Gas energy supply customers to have access to British Gas engineers merely that they had to be British Gas customers. They said the ads made clear that consumers would simply need to have a British Gas product (not necessarily an energy product), and therefore be a British Gas customer, in order to have access to British Gas engineers. If customers decided to leave British Gas, either by cancelling an energy supply contract or another British Gas product, then those customers would lose access to British Gas engineers (unless they were "vulnerable customers in emergencies"). British Gas therefore believed that the ads were not misleading and were not ambiguous, inaccurate or exaggerated. Finally, they said that the ads did not make an undue appeal to fear.
The BACC endorsed the advertiser's comments as regards the TV ad.
We considered that the ads would be seen by readers and viewers to imply that British Gas customers who changed energy suppliers would lose access to British Gas engineers. We noted that that was not the case, since British Gas "homecare" customers could still have access to British Gas engineers despite being with another energy supplier and holders of other British Gas products (such as home security) would continue to have access to British Gas engineers through the "On Call Assistance" service. Leaving British Gas for energy supply would not therefore always lead to loss of access to British Gas engineers. We considered that the ads were likely to mislead and that British Gas energy customers might choose not to change energy suppliers for fear of losing access to British Gas engineers. We therefore concluded that the ads were misleading and constituted an undue appeal to fear.
On this point the poster and press ads were in breach of CAP Code clauses 3.1 (Substantiation), 7.1 (Truthfulness) and 9.1 (Fear and distress).
On this point the TV ads were in breach of CAP (Broadcast) TV Advertising Standards Code rules 5.1 (Misleading advertising) and 6.4 (Personal distress).
2. Complaints upheld
British Gas said they were aware that many consumers found it difficult to find an appropriately qualified engineer with availability to attend a visit at short notice and at a reasonable cost. It said the purpose of the TV and radio ads was to make consumers aware that all British Gas customers were able to use British Gas engineers. They said that both the ads stated "Conditions apply" and said one condition of access to British Gas engineers was that a fixed fee for labour and call out would be charged (£132 outside London, £144 within London). They said reasonable consumers would expect that using a British Gas engineer would attract a charge and that it would be unreasonable for them to infer that British Gas offered completely free servicing to its gas supply customers.
The BACC endorsed British Gas' comments as regards the TV ad.
We considered that the TV ads could mislead viewers into believing that British Gas engineers were available to British Gas energy customers as part of the cost of their gas supply. We considered that the ads implied that had "Michelle" been a British Gas customer, she would not have had to pay for her boiler repair. The ads stated that she spent £400 on non-British Gas plumbers and that she returned to British Gas "happy to have that extra service where they come out if there's a problem". We considered that the ads did not make clear that the "extra service" "Michelle" referred to carried a charge (whether for "On Call Assistance" or "HomeCare" services) and that viewers were likely to infer that boiler repair was included in the cost of Michelle's gas supply. We therefore concluded that the TV ads were misleading.
On this point The TV ads were in breach of CAP (Broadcast) TV Advertising Standards Code rule 5.1 (Misleading advertising).
3. Complaint not upheld
British Gas made the same comments for this point as for point 2 above.
The RACC endorsed British Gas' comments as regards the radio ad. They did not agree that the radio ad implied the use of British Gas engineers was inclusive to British Gas customers. They said the ad merely stated that only British Gas customers had access to British Gas engineers.
We agreed that the radio ad did not imply that British Gas energy supply customers had access to British Gas engineers for no charge, as part of their energy supply service. We agreed with the RACC that the ad merely stated that British Gas customers had access to British Gas engineers and gave no impression that that access would be included in the cost of gas supply.
On this point, the radio ad was not in breach of CAP (Broadcast) Radio Advertising Standards Code section 2, rule 3 (Misleadingness).
4. Complaints not upheld
British Gas said the TV ads simply highlighted the fact that viewers might find it difficult to find an engineer on an on-demand basis for a reasonable price. They said the problem of rogue traders was well recognised by the Institute of Trading Standards and the police. They said they offered customers price certainty as well as a prompt response time. They said the testimonial used in the ads was a true account of "Michelle's" experience and did not therefore attack the services of others.
The BACC said the ads simply showed a specific event that had happened to a specific individual. They said certain industries were known to have some disreputable elements operating in them and that they felt it was appropriate for advertisers to point that out where appropriate. They said that doing so did not imply that the rest of that industry or market was flawed.
We noted that the ads featured a genuine testimonial, which detailed the specific experiences of an individual British Gas customer. We considered that viewers would understand that the ads simply featured "Michelle's" experiences and were unlikely to believe that all customers who left British Gas or used non-British Gas engineers would face the same problems. We did not consider that either the images or the language used in the ads were denigratory to non-British Gas engineers and plumbers nor that they implied that all non-British gas engineers and plumbers were 'cowboys' or 'rogues'.
The TV ads were not in breach of CAP (Broadcast) TV Advertising Standards Code rule 5.4.3 (Denigration).
5. Complaint upheld
British Gas accepted that the radio ad, which had been broadcast on The Eagle FM, could have been heard by listeners who lived in an area where the savings comparison of "one pound a year" was inaccurate. They acknowledged those listeners might have found the ad misleading. They said they would be speaking to the agency they used to buy radio advertising spots and asking them to ensure that this type of ad was kept 'in area' in future. British Gas apologised for the oversight.
The RACC said British Gas confirmed that the price comparison featured in the ad was accurate for the regions in which it was due to be broadcast. They said they understood, however, that the ad had been inadvertently broadcast in an area where the price comparison was incorrect.
We noted that the ad was broadcast in an area where the savings claim it featured was incorrect. We welcomed British Gas' apology and its assurance that the mistake would be avoided in future. Nevertheless, because the savings claim did not apply to a number of listeners in the area it was broadcast, we concluded that the ad (when broadcast on Eagle FM) was misleading.
On this point the radio ad was in breach of CAP (Broadcast) Radio Advertising Standards Code section 2, rules 3 (Misleadingness) and 6 (Fair comparisons).(Advertising Standards Authority)