Supermarkets are using the ASA as a pawn in the price game

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Another week, another complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority over the aggressive marketing tactics used by the supermarkets in their insatiable price war, but should Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s be using the ASA as a pawn in their game?

The ASA has long been used by brands to make complaints against rivals advertising tactics. Airlines do it, broadband providers do it and the supermarkets do it.

The war of advertising words has been stirred up by the introduction of the Asda Price Guarantee last April, and Asda’s additional pledge to be 10% cheaper than its rivals.

Tesco and Morrisons slammed the original price guarantee calling it misleading and claiming that it excludes a number of grocery staples. Tesco went wild with tactical advertising campaigns to counter Asda’s claims.

The latest instalment has seen a Tesco ad, which showed a selection of fresh food with the Tesco and equivalent Asda prices in a bid to rubbish Asda’s own price claims, banned after Asda complained to the ASA that it was misleading.

Supermarkets are using the ASA to fuel a tactical PR campaign, which isn’t what the body was set up to do. The watchdog came into existence to protect consumers against genuinely offensive and misleading ads, not as a weapon to use against rivals.

The ASA is in the process of reviewing its operations as part of its efforts to “reduce the number and nature of tit for tat complaints” and take what it calls a “media neutral regulatory approach”.

Quite rightly, one of its considerations is to introduce a charge for competitor complaints about non-broadcast advertising.

Tesco and Asda are by no means the only retailers that use the ASA’s position as an independent watchdog to score points against rivals in the name of the consumers’ interest. But I doubt this constant tit for tat complaining against each other’s tactical ads is in the consumers’ interest at all.

It takes up a great deal of time that the ASA could be spending on genuine consumer complaints and it doesn’t do much for the credibility of either retailer.

I would applaud Tesco for making a complaint against Asda’s advertising for being misleading and vice versa, if it hadn’t been found guilty of the same thing itself.

There will obviously be occasions when a competitor feels the need to draw attention to advertising that has a genuinely damaging effect on consumers, but due to the sheer volume of price advertising that the supermarkets do many of the ads that receive complaints and are subsequently investigated are short term tactical ads that run for one day only.

What use is a retrospective investigation, banning an ad that was never intended to run again anyway?

Perhaps retailers should invest their time in making sure their own advertising is free of misleading claims rather than shopping rivals to the regulator.

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