British Ad Watchdog Tightens Rules on Price Comparisons

17 January 2003

The Advertising Standards Authority, an industry-funded voluntary body that oversees the UK’s press and billboard ads, has slapped the wrists of the nation’s largest supermarket and home improvement chains for misleadingly comparing their prices with those of rivals.

These two sectors, along with telecoms operators, have become notorious for the visionary way in which they present their prices (and those of their competitors) in advertisements.

Following a raft of complaints from the public and consumer organisations, the ASA has had enough.

Says Guy Parker, secretary of the ASA committee of advertising practice: “In competitive sectors like retailing, marketers will often use price comparisons as a key message in their advertising. [These] can be a good thing, informing the public about good deals and promoting vigorous competition that keeps prices low.”

“But,” he continues, “it is all too easy to get it wrong – and when that happens, marketers can end up censured by the ASA and subject to public disapproval.”

The watchdog then promptly censured B&Q, with 301-outlets the UK’s largest home improvements chain [by sales]. The offending ad compared B&Q’s prices with those of Homebase, its major competitor, claiming: ‘Homebase lowered their higher prices on these products to compare them with ours. Next thing they did was to put them up again.’

Hand aloft in pious indignation, Homebase complained that B&Q had “misleadingly” implied it had put up its prices immediately and “denigrated” Homebase by implying it used “unfair trading practices”. B&Q’s defended its ad on grounds of justification, claiming that prices at Homebase had been increased “soon afterwards”.

The ASA tactfully refrained from comparing this exchange with that of mediaeval theologians debating the number of angels that could be accommodated on the head of a pin, and instead issued a new set of rules.

These require marketers to …

• Avoid placing ads in publications with long copy deadlines if their prices are subject to change at short notice;

• Make it clear that promotional prices are exactly that; and ...

• State in their advertisement the time and place of the relevant comparative price check.

Data sourced from:; additional content by WARC staff