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Independence and Impartiality

05 July 2012

A fundamental cornerstone of the CAP and BCAP Codes is that marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so. An ad can mislead by ambiguity, through presentation or by omitting important information. When considering presentation, advertisers should take care to think about the likely message that consumers will take from a claim. The ASA has investigated several complaints about companies that claim to be “independent” or “impartial”. Most recently, those investigations have been in the estate agency sector, where consumers might infer that independent operators offer greater local and specialist knowledge; and the funeral services sector, where consumers might attribute an “independent” business with a greater degree of empathy or personal service at a time of grief or vulnerability.

In 2011, the ASA investigated and upheld a number of complaints about funeral services claiming to be “independent”. In short, the ASA ruled that the claim was misleading because, despite being a separate legal entity, the companies were essentially part of a larger group or a controlling share was held by another company. For example, in the case of Michael Miller & Partners Ltd, another company owned 75% of the shares and controlling shares in four other funeral businesses.

In 2012, however, the ASA adjudicated that use of the word “independent” in an ad for Richard Steel & Partners funeral directors, was not likely to mislead. The ad was headed “Richard Steel & Partners Independent Family Owned Funeral Directors”. The ASA noted that all the shares in Richard Steel were owned by Steel Allery Ltd, the shareholders, which comprised two members of the Steel family and Mr Allery, and that the Steel family participated directly in the running of the business, as funeral directors. The ASA therefore concluded that the use of “Independent” in the phrase "Independent Family Owned Funeral Directors" was accurate.

In 2012 the ASA adjudicated on a complaint about Darlows of Llanishen, a regional estate agent who described itself as “part of the UK’s largest independent estate agency group”. The ASA noted that, despite trading under a number of brands, the parent company, Spicerhaart Group Ltd was family owned and controlled, focused primarily on estate agency and independent of any other larger concerns. It considered that Spicerhaart was an independently-owned estate agency group and therefore it was accurate for Darlows, to claim to be part of that “independent” group. However, the ASA maintained that using the term “independent” alone, without clear qualification to indicate that Darlows was part of the SpicerHaart Group Ltd, was likely to mislead.

At a glance

* If it is important for a consumer’s understanding, qualify your claim of ‘independence’ e.g. “part of an independent group”.

* Being a separate legal company does not, alone, guarantee that marketers can claim to be independent. If another company owns a controlling share in your business, your claim to be independent is likely to mislead.

* Complicated company structures or another company having a majority share might mean the claim to be ‘independent’ needs extra scrutiny.

Related AdviceOnline entries, Claims of independence and impartiality and Funeral services have recently been updated and are available to view online.

As always, the Copy Advice team is happy to help with any questions and review copy. You can call us on 0207 492 2100 or submit your copy online, here.

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