John Shannon: The double dot of Deutschland

Kitchen company Moben has been castigated by the ASA after it was accused of pretending to be German. Is this fair, and does it open the way to a new kind of advertising? asks John Shannon

When it comes to the policing of advertising, the consensus in the UK is that self-regulation represents an infinitely preferable alternative to pre-emptive regulation imposed on – rather than defined by – the advertising industry. For print and other non-broadcast forms, responsibility for ensuring that campaigns placed in the UK are “legal, decent, honest and truthful” resides with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

In the main – and despite a recent trend involving campaigns seemingly conceived with the express intent of inviting rejection from the ASA in order to benefit from the publicity such decisions generate

– the system works.

Among the ASA’s most recent rulings, alongside complaints upheld against ads for Zanussi, Orange and Barclays Bank, is an interesting decision concerning kitchen furniture manufacturer Moben. A press ad placed on behalf of Moben attracted complaint for its use of two dots placed above the “o”. The complainant felt these appeared to represent an umlaut. This was taken to imply that the company and its products were of German origin. As the complainant was aware, however, Moben is in fact a division of the Homeform group, which is based in Manchester, where use of the umlaut is, shall we say, restricted.

Defending itself, Moben pointed out that even if the two dots over the “o” were construed as an umlaut (which it maintained was not the intention) that would not mean that their kitchens were necessarily German because other countries – including Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein – also use umlauts or similar accents. Besides, the company argued, the dots form part of a combined logo which also covers Homeform’s other subsidiaries, Sharps bedrooms and Dolphin bathrooms.

One of the interesting aspects of the case is that the ASA’s ruling assumes that potential British customers would both correctly identify the umlaut and as a result, associate the name with Germany. This is despite the fact that similar accents appear in numerous languages in addition to those mentioned above (Swedish and Turkish, for example) and the fact that, according to a survey published earlier this year to coincide with the European Year of Languages, only ten per cent of British adults claim any knowledge of German.

Nevertheless, the ruling stands and Moben will now be expected to either remove the design from its ads or to add a disclaimer stating that it is not a German company.

So is that the end of the affair? Not necessarily. Without wishing to either subvert the principle of industry self-regulation, advocate the placing of untruthful advertising or endorse the practice of producing campaigns which aim simply to provoke, the ASA’s decision could open up new, entirely legitimate advertising avenues for Moben to exploit, in ways similar to the ones perfected by Heineken and Carlsberg over the years. For example, how about: “Moben. Probably the best kitchens in the world, outside Germany”? We’ll see.

John Shannon is president of Grey International

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