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Are you legal, decent honest and truthful?

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If not, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) will be after you. With the recent publication of their 2007 report, we've provided a timely reminder of the main rules to follow if you do any form of advertising or promotion at all. Even if all you have an advert in Yellow Pages, you're not immune as they regularly order sole traders and small companies to completely change what they do.

And it's no idle threat either, as the ASA has real power. A "slap on the wrist" is an order to change your advertising. If you don't, you may find that every single advert you do has to be vetted by them before publication or ultimately you could even be reported to the Office of Fair Trading, as happened recently to Ryanair.

If someone complains about your advert and you don't respond, advertisers (including the Yellow Pages and website directories) are likely to be ordered to refuse to accept any further advertising from you. So there's no escape.

One complaint is all it takes to trigger an investigation. It can be from a member of the public or even a competitor, but once received the ASA is duty-bound to investigate and then report its findings, taking action if it's upheld. They publish their adjudications every week on their website at www.asa.org.uk and it makes frightening reading, seeing what look like trivial matters leading to small companies having to change their overall advertising approach.

How do you comply?

The key things which are likely to trigger a complaint are as follows;

Making unsubstantiated claims
If you claim to be the area's No.1, or leading, or best, or some other similar term then you need to be able to prove it. If a competitor claims that you're not "the leading" then you'll have to provide evidence of some kind of research that justified the claim you made. If you can justify it using evidence, you may be able to continue claiming it. If you can't, you'll have to change it.

Not delivering promises
A recent ruling was made against an electrician's advert in Yellow Pages who claimed to offer a 24 hour service. A customer called at 3am one morning after a power cut but had to leave a message. When the electrician subsequently turned up at 9am the next morning the customer complained that the advert was misleading. The ASA agreed as "24 hour service" was deemed to mean operating outside normal office hours. One case was enough to make the electrician change his whole advertising approach.

Not offering sale goods
This regularly happens to retailers like PC World and Comet but could also apply to you if you advertise a sale. If you advertise goods or services as being available at a sale price or discount, then you'd better make sure that you actually have enough stock to meet demand. It's not good enough to say "sold out" unless you can prove that you realistically stocked up for the sale and were able to meet forecast demand. If you only mean to give it to the first 10 purchasers, then you have to make that clear.

Making green claims
These days, everyone wants to emphasise their green credentials but it's an area the ASA is particularly keen on. If you claim to be "greener" than competitors or to be a green organisation then you have to be able to prove it. You'll need some official research or evidence to back it up. If you claim your emissions are lower, then you'll need scientific proof and be able to show that you've taken all factors into account.

A lap dancing club in Stoke-in-Trent had a ruling against them because they advertised on local radio at a time when children were likely to be listening, i.e. morning drive-time. The product itself wasn't considered indecent, it was the nature of the advert but it shows that you have to be careful if you want to use any form of adult-based humour or themes.

In summary

So long as your advertising is honest and you can back up any claims you make, you will generally be okay. However, remember that all it takes is one complaint from a competitor to trigger an investigation. If the ruling goes against you, it may have a significant impact on any future advertising.

Ask yourself this question; could you stand up in public and defend what you've done? If not, it's best to seek advice before making any claims. If in doubt, visit www.asa.org.uk first.

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