Ryanair take the Michael out of ASA code

Budget airline Ryanair faced the wrath of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for the third time in four months last week after the regulator banned a print ad accusing Lastminute.com of swindling customers. But the move has rais-ed questions about whether the ASA has been too lenient on the “rebel” airline.

Lastminute.com complained to the ASA after Ryanair ran an ad in the national press with the strapline: “Robbed by Lastminute.com?” It showed a cartoon of a burglar and claimed Lastminute.com charges 100% more for a Ryanair ticket than the airline, and that its terms and conditions were misleading. The ASA ruled that the low-cost airline had “unfairly discredited” Lastmin-ute.com. As a result, the website has stopped selling Ryanair flights.

Ryanair is no stranger to ASA rulings. In August, the airline was told to stop running claims in press ads saying its London to Brussels service was cheaper and quicker than the Eurostar train service. The previous month the regulator had rapped Ryanair over ads attacking the then Chancellor Gordon Brown’s decision to double Air Passenger Duty (APD). It was ordered to remove claims that the aviation industry accounted for only 2% of CO2 emissions.

Unheeded advice
The ASA also advised Ryanair to seek guidance from its Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) copy advice team, a recommendation the airline ignored. In fact, following its second clash with the ASA, Ryanair threatened to continue running the misleading ad in its original form.

Ryanair head of communications Peter Sherrard defends the airline’s advertising, saying it stands up for the consumer’s right to low prices when other companies are “ripping off” customers. He adds: “We don’t pay attention to what the ASA says. It won’t stop us from exposing red tape which is holding us back from maintaining low prices for our consumers.” 

Industry experts maintain that if advertisers like Ryanair continue to re-offend in spite of previous warnings, then the ASA should take stronger action. The regulator says if companies persistently run misleading ads it has the authority to evoke a “pre-vetting sanction” that makes it mandatory for advertisers to show their ads to the ASA before launching new campaigns.

An ASA spokesman says the situation has not reached that stage yet and that prolific advertisers like Ryanair fall foul of its rules more often because they advertise more frequently. However, observers point out that there are countless examples of companies that spend far more on advertising than Ryanair that have not been brought before the ASA in recent years. Wilson adds that even if the carrier does not care about what it says, it still has to adhere to its rulings.

A lack of ‘real action’
Flybe marketing director Simon Lilley believes it is only when matters reach the Office of Fair Trading that real action is taken – and maybe this is why some companies continue to offend in spite of ASA rulings.

Gary Jacobs, managing director of destination marketing agency Fox Kalomaski, says there are other ways of pushing the boundaries in marketing than continuously breaking ASA codes of practice. He adds: “Censorship is wrong but if a company continues to mislead in its advertising then it should be stopped.” 

Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary is referred to as the “Robin Hood” of the advertising industry but many think he could be dangerously close to “crossing the line”. Added Value chief executive Angus Porter says there is no doubt it is deliberately courting controversy. “O’Leary is antagonistic and a rebel,” he adds. “The airline risks over-stepping the mark and destroying its relationship with consumers, competitors and the ASA.” 

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