Recently, an advertisement for Scientology appeared in the pages of a UK ‘Newspaper’ called “Metro“. This is distributed free of charge at busy bus and train stations. It is aimed at stressed commuters, and makes its money from extensive advertising, so it is tabloid in style .
It seems to me that this advertisement clearly contravenes several of the rules laid down by the UK Advertising Standards Authority (e.g.. it is seriously misleading).
You do not have to be a UK citizen to complain to the ASA. You only need to have viewed an advertisement which originated from a UK source – which includes websites.
Complaints can be made online (see below). After you have done so, an investigator will determine if there has been a breach of the rules. If he/she finds that the rules have been broken, the ASA can require that the advertisement to removed and that similar claims are not made in future. There are additional sanctions that the organisation if the breach is repeated.
Complainants enjoy absolute anonymity.
In the rest of this post, I describe what I think are good grounds for a complaint regarding the advertisement in “Metro” – and provide all of the information you need to to submit your own via and easy-to-use web form.
The advertisement in question was published on February the 13th in the print and online edition of Metro UK. It appears on page 71.
Here are links to saved copies of the advertisement itself, and the whole edition of the paper which you can download. These files are .pdf documents which are suitable for attaching to the online ASA complaint form as supporting evidence.
The advertisement also appears in a website offering ‘back copies’ of “Metro”, which can be viewed here http://e-edition.metro.co.uk/2015/02/13/ If the ASA was to be made aware of this website, and a complaint was upheld, they might order the advertisement to be revised or removed.
The text reads as follows:
We live in a turbulent world. Each day brings seemingly unending human suffering. From natural disasters to those brought about by mankind’s own hand. And this is in addition to the everyday calamities that fail to make headlines.
Families caught in the turmoil of divorce. Students facing failure in school. People struggling with problems on the job. Loved ones coping with the hopelessness of addiction.
Whatever the misfortune – large or small, natural or personal – there are those, duty bound to answer the call, who have the courage and commitment to go out and do something about it. These are the Scientology Volunteer Ministers. A movement that operates worldwide and linked through a network of groups, they stand as one of the largest independent relief forces on Earth – with the motto: SOMETHING CAN BE DONE ABOUT IT.
Grounds for Complaint
This seems to me that these claims on behalf of Volunteer Ministers violate several of the points laid down in the CAP code – the rules which the ASA enforce. This code applies to non-broadcast advertising, sales promotion and direct marketing and includes the following provisions:
3.1 Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so.
- The text of the advertisement speaks of “natural disasters” and claims that “Whatever the misfortune – large or small, natural or personal […] Scientology Volunteer Ministers […] stand as one of the largest independent relief forces on Earth. In conjunction with the background photograph (which shows “Volunteer Ministers” in their yellow T-shirt ‘uniform’ posed in front of a military helicopter that was part of the Haiti relief effort) . This is seriously misleading because it suggests that Volunteer ministers are directly comparable with international organisations such as the Red Cross. In actual fact, the ‘relief efforts’ mounted by Volunteer Ministers are modest typically involving only small groups of individuals, with no internationally recognised credentials
- Volunteer Ministers typically apply a form of ‘healing hands’ (‘touch assists’, in Scientology parlance) and distribute leaflets (“The Way to Happiness”, a Scientology ‘moral code’). They bring no substantial expertise, supplies or equipment. A reasonable person would likely characterise these activities as religious proselytisation, not disaster relief.
3.3 Marketing communications must not mislead the consumer by omitting material information. They must not mislead by hiding material information or presenting it in an unclear, unintelligible, ambiguous or untimely manner.
The advertisement states that Volunteer Ministers are “a movement that operates worldwide and linked through a network of groups”. This statement misleadingly inflates the actual number of people engaged in relief efforts by including the large number of ‘social betterment’ organisations operated by Scientology which operate in completely different areas.
3.7 Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation.
As Volunteer Ministers are small in number and do not perform services that a reasonable person would recognise as disaster relief, I submit that there is consequently serious doubt that objective documentary evidence exists for the claim that Volunteer Ministers […] stand as one of the largest independent relief forces on Earth.
The only acceptable documentary evidence that would support this claim would have to demonstrate the deployment of large numbers of personnel with internationally recognised qualifications in disasters relief and the provision of supplies (e.g. food and shelter) and services (e.g. medical treatment by qualified doctors).
How to Complain
You can submit a complaint via the ASA’s online complaint form.
NB: If, like me, you use an alternative browser (e.g. Firefox or Chrome) switch to Internet Explorer for this occasion – the ASA form fails to submit in Firefox, forcing you to start over.
ASA Investigations typically take a month or more, so be patient. You should, however, receive an acknowledgement by email within a few days.
Finally, please bear in mind that the ASA staff are only concerned with breaches of the detained rules which they administer. It is tempting, but counter-productive to preach to them about the evils of Scientology, however, this is not a protest. It is most effective to stick to the plain facts.