The European Commission hopes to introduce a single set of rules for defining misleading advertising across the European Union.

Last week the EC adopted proposals for a directive on unfair business practices – including advertising and marketing. These suggestions are designed to clamp down on misleading or aggressive techniques.

Imposing a single set of rules across the fifteen-member block has clear benefits for business. EU firms would only have to win approval in their home market to sell to consumers across the continent.

“Businesses currently face a tangled web of 15 different national rules on practices like advertising and marketing,” declared David Byrne, commissioner for consumer affairs. This situation “creates legal uncertainty and significant costs for firms which want to sell cross-border.”

The legislation would place an outright ban on (among other things):

• ‘Bait advertising’ – promoting a product as a special offer without having any in stock
• Use of ‘advertorials’ without declaring they are advertisements
• Advertising to children “in a way which implies that their acceptance by their peers is dependent on their parents buying them a particular product”
• Pyramid schemes
• Persistent and unrequested contact by phone, fax, email or other remote media

However, some trade bodies are concerned at potential conflict between these rules and self-regulation. “The proposal is vague in how it would handle vulnerable groups like children,” commented Angela Mills of the European Publishers Council. “We deal with this well with self-regulation and we don’t want to be told how to do this.”

There are also concerns that, despite the single set of guidelines, courts and governments in EU countries could still come to different interpretations as to whether an ad can be branded misleading.

The proposals have been forwarded to the European Parliament. If approved there and given the green light by member states, they could be in force by 2005.

Data sourced from: multiple sources; additional content by WARC staff