Z2K Formal Complaint to Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)

Z2K has written to Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to make an official complaint in relation to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) launch of their 9 week campaign in the Metro newspaper which began on Wednesday 22nd May 2019.

We at Z2K, an anti-poverty charity, are writing to make an official complaint in relation to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) launch of their 9 week campaign in the Metro newspaper which began on Wednesday 22nd May 2019.

We have read through your Non Broadcast Codes and believe that this complaint falls under the codes 03, misleading advertising; we refer particularly to rules about exaggeration 3.1, 3.2, 3.3.

The DWP are advertising what they call ‘Universal Credit uncovered’, a series of adverts ‘busting myths’ on Universal Credit.  According to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), you ‘work to make sure all advertising wherever it appears is legal, decent, honest and truthful’, we consider that the aforementioned DWP adverts are deliberately misleading and propagandist.[1]

Propaganda definition: “information, ideas, opinions, or images, often only giving one part of an argument, that are broadcast, published, or in some other way spread with the intention of influencing people’s opinions.”[2]

We attach copies of these adverts and refer to 3 in particular below:

One advert says it’s a “myth” that “you have to wait 5 weeks to get any money on Universal Credit”, followed by “fact: Jobcentres can “urgently pay you an advance.”   We refer in particular, to rule 3.4.5 which relates to arrangements for payment being different from what the consumer could reasonably expect.

It is not clear that an advance must be paid back, the advert omits that these advances are taken out of future benefits and have to be paid back over several months, leaving people in subsequent months, with less money than they are entitled to, and less money than they will have actually budgeted for. It could be misconstrued to mean it is a payment in advance instead of a payment in arrears; it is essentially a loan.    We would be grateful to you, the ASA, to clarify also, whether there should be a statement saying “payment terms and conditions will apply” as it would say with a product regulated by the FCA.

A second advert says “myth: Universal Credit makes it harder to pay your rent on time.” Followed by “fact”; your Jobcentre can give you an advance payment and pay rent directly to landlords”.

There are two misleading factors in the “fact” part of this sentence.  Firstly (although the “fact” sentence is printed half in black ink and half in green ink), it reads as though it is saying an advance payment can be paid directly to the landlords.  In reality, the DWP will never pay an advance payment to a landlord, only directly to the client.  Although the two different colours of the ink could potentially split the sentence into two points, a person who has difficulty in distinguishing between two colours for any reason, let alone a disability, will find this difficult to understand and will be misled into believing that an advance payment can be paid directly to a landlord.

The second misleading factor in this second advert is that it implies that anyone can have their rent paid directly to the landlord.  In reality, you have to apply to the job centre for this to happen, and you have to meet certain criteria.  As an advice agency, we have applied for people with numerous vulnerabilities to have the housing element of their Universal Credit paid directly to landlords, and we have not been successful in securing this.  So, for a person on the old legacy benefits, who would have had housing benefit paid directly to the landlord, it is true that it will be harder to pay their rent on time, because they now must take responsibility for doing it themselves, which takes more planning.  We therefore refer to the codes on exaggeration, particularly 3.11.

Another of the broader adverts claims it’s a “myth” that “Universal Credit doesn’t work”, adding: “fact: it does.” These statements omit the thousands of claimants universal credit does not ‘work for’ but instead has driven them into debt, rent arrears, foodbanks, and homelessness. The Metro’s own universal credit article page refers to the extreme hardship it is causing. Or for further evidence, we refer you to the damming evidence the Work and Pensions Committee have received and reported on.

Indeed, the chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, Frank Field himself commented on the Universal Credit Adverts: “If the DWP wants to understand the facts about Universal Credit, it could look to the horrific, harrowing evidence we heard this morning. People – mostly women, single mums, students – are telling us that they are forced through sheer desperation to exchange sex for the means to feed, house and warm themselves and their children. Instead of going out to get the evidence for itself, the DWP just dismisses this testimony as anecdote and brushes it aside.”

He continues: “Rather than wasting huge chunks of desperately needed resources on 10 weeks of advertorial, why won’t the Government just take a look at the terrible reality of the facts we and so many others are showing them, for free, and instead spend that money on making some of its claims about UC helping people come true?” [3]

We believe these adverts to be dangerous in their disingenuousness and could lead to people who are not better off on Universal Credit than they were on their old legacy benefits, being seriously harmed and at risk of living with not enough income for basic provisions such as food.

We would also like to challenge whether it is clear enough that the adverts are in fact produced by the DWP.  Given that the nature of the advertisement is that it is targeted to people who are out of work, many of who will be sick or disabled (including sight disabilities as well as other disability such as dyslexia), we argue that the DWP should do more to make it clear that these are DWP advertisements, by using its branding, such as its logo and colours to make it more easily distinguishable to a target audience, that by its very nature of being an audience that is claiming benefits, will have a disproportionately higher number of people who are sick and disabled.  Indeed in an article by Dan Bloom in the Mirror newspaper, dated 23rd May, he states that he has seen a leaked internal memo from the DWP that states that the DWP purposely avoided having DWP branding.

We therefore urge the ASA to take this complaint seriously and act as quickly as possible and look forward to your response.

[1] https://www.asa.org.uk/asset/8C4ECE0C-1EFA-43B9-885C0D18480E3F94/

[2] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/propaganda

[3] https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/work-and-pensions-committee/news-parliament-2017/universal-credit-chairs-comments/