November 2004 - Waiting for the Green Light

Although your DRTV campaign has enjoyed great success in the United States, it doesn’t mean its product claims meet the same regulations in the U.K. Failing to proceed with caution will likely cause you to hit the brakes or merely keep you idling.

By Richard Whinfrey

For many years, the United Kingdom has been regarded as one of the most firmly regulated advertising markets in the world. Infomercials arriving from North America have invariably required adaptation to meet U.K. criteria. In one instance a 281/2-minute infomercial from a respected U.S. producer actually featured only 71/2 minutes of U.K.-compliant material.

Occasionally, a U.S. show just cannot be made U.K. compliant. For many U.S. and multinational direct marketers and electronic retailers, this may seem like discouraging news to their ears, especially if they hope to penetrate the U.K. market. However, it simply means that companies, both foreign and domestic, must educate themselves about the United Kingdom’s regulations that exist with specific product claims.

“Order today and we’ll include a free gizmo with your widget”…”The first 500 callers will receive a free carry bag.” These messages, designed to create a sense of urgency and prompt viewers to call straight away, have proved popular with U.S. direct response producers. Unfortunately, they do not generally meet U.K. advertising rules and regulations when used in infomercials. If consumers are told that they must order today to get the free gizmo, it cannot be offered again the next day. If the special deal is for the first 500 callers, that must be the first 500 who call for that product, not the first 500 each time the infomercial is aired. Once 500 people have called, the message can no longer be broadcast.

“Lose a dress size in three days-guaranteed”…”Get the shaped and toned body you’ve always wanted in just 15 minutes a week”…”I used to have a 56-inch waist but now, thanks to the Paunch Popper, I’ve lost 12 inches.” These statements are also likely to arouse the concern of the regulator. Rates of weight and inch loss must be typical of those experienced by users of the product and must be supported by clinical trials or third-party testing. They must also be within limits considered safe. For example, you can claim no more than two pounds of weight lost per week. Advertising should also refer to the need to control calorie intake in addition to carrying out any exercise regime.

Claims that results can be achieved in a limited time must be based on trial data. If a particular benefit is guaranteed, it means that everyone who uses the product correctly should reasonably be expected to achieve the specified result. However, the addition of the words “or your money back” is not regarded as an acceptable way out. Someone who has a 56-inch waist is clinically obese and cannot be used as an example in U.K. advertising because they, and any results achieved, are not regarded as typical of the population at large.

The above are prime examples of the kind of regulation that direct marketers face in the United Kingdom. From all of this, U.S. or multinational direct marketers might think that the U.K. is almost a no-go area for DRTV, whereas it is actually the largest and most dynamic DRTV market in Europe. This is due to the widespread acceptance of digital television coupled with the fact that British consumers generally trust what they see in television advertising. Because the country has had a strict regulatory regime, it has helped the industry gain a trusting audience who have welcomed both live and pre-recorded television shopping.

“Self-regulation in a co-regulatory environment” is a phrase that encapsulates the enormous changes taking place in the regulation of U.K. broadcast advertising. These changes will not bring about an easing of the rules but rather a more open, transparent and consistent way in which the regulations are interpreted and applied.

The converging technologies of television, radio, mobile telephony, PCs, etc., have heightened the need to have consistent advertising regulation across all these different delivery platforms, and these regulations should be in line with non-broadcast advertising as well. As a first stage, the U.K. government has brought together the individual responsibilities of regulators-such as ITC (television) and RAu (radio)-to form one super-regulator, Ofcom (Office of Communications). At the same time, it has been agreed that advertisers and broadcasters should have a closer involvement in forming appropriate rules and regulations for the future.

Ofcom now has, with government agreement, delegated its day-to-day regulatory responsibilities to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), a non-governmental organization established 40 years ago and managed by the advertising industry, originally for the self-regulation of non broadcast advertising. This way, all aspects of advertising regulation from television and radio to print and Internet media will meet under one roof. This also provides the opportunity for consistency of approach as all the different advertising codes are gradually harmonized.

The interests of the TV home shopping industry will be championed because it has a representative on the Board of the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP), which is the body responsible to Ofcom and ASA, for proposing regulatory changes. However, the U.K. shopping channels are not really looking for substantial changes to the existing codes. The rules that presently exist not only protect the consumers, they also protect DR businesses from unscrupulous competitors who could cause the industry immeasurable damage.

Yes, there are specific things U.K. direct marketers would like to change. For example, why are doctors not allowed to appear giving advice in television advertising? How would consumers be disadvantaged if this rule were changed?

In the United States and Europe, direct response marketers and electronic retailers have been establishing their own codes of ethics and tightening their rules through the creation of self-regulation programs that guide best advertising practices. The United Kingdom especially adheres to a strict set of rules that have helped the DR industry to grow rapidly with the help of consumers and regulators. Many direct marketers believe it is in everyone’s best interest that this situation be replicated in other markets. Otherwise, there is the risk that unhappy consumers will turn away from DRTV or frustrated regulators will introduce overly strict, burdensome and inappropriate regulations.

Richard Whinfrey is managing director of Thane Direct U.K. Ltd., chairman of the British Television Shopping Association and a member of the Board of ERA Europe. Please send comments and questions to [email protected].


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