The activity saw vans driving around London featuring handcuffs next to text stating “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest”. It also trumpeted the number of arrests made in the area the van was circulating.
The campaign sparked 224 complaints, including those from groups representing migrants in the UK, legal academics and Labour peer Lord Lipsey. They challenged whether the poster was “offensive” and “distressing” because it was reminiscent of slogans used by racist groups to attack immigrants in the past and whether it was “irresponsible” and “harmful” because it could incite or exacerbate racial hatred and tensions in multicultural communities.
Separately, some complaints challenged whether the claim “106 arrests last week in your area” was “misleading” and could be substantiated – particularly because the qualification in small print about the period and areas in which these arrests allegedly took place was not legible on a moving vehicle.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned the campaign on the basis that it was misleading.
The watchdog considered most people would assume the claim “in your area” would refer to the locality or borough in which they saw the poster – not a significant part of North London – and that the data in the ad did not relate to the week prior to the vans appearing, meaning it was likely to mislead.
The ASA also said most viewers of the ad would not have enough time to read the qualification about the areas and week in which the area took place, especially given the size of the small print.
When considering the ad’s likelihood to offend, the ASA said while the poster and the phrase “Go home” may be distasteful to some in the context of an ad addressed to illegal immigrants, it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread distress. It did note, however, phrasing such as “Return home” could have been used instead to prevent such a reaction.
The ASA also concluded the poster was unlikely to condone or encourage violence or anti-social behaviour in multi-cultural communities because the message was clearly addressed to “illegal immigrants” rather than a message based on race or ethnicity to “non-naturalised” immigrants who were in the UK legally or are UK citizens.
A Home Office spokesman said of the adjudication: “We are pleased the ASA have concluded that our pilot was neither offensive nor irresponsible. We have always been clear that this campaign was about encouraging illegal immigrants to leave the country voluntarily and was not targeted at particular racial or ethnic groups.”
In its response to complaints, The Home Office said the message was “in no way racist” and that the Metropolitan Police confirmed there were no increases in community tension indicators in the pilot boroughs for the campaign or elsewhere in London during the period the posters were displayed. A YouGov poll conducted on 13 August found 66 per cent of people did not consider the posters racist, The Home Office added.