The UK Advertising Standards Association Acts on Scientology’s ‘Volunteer Ministers’ Advertisements

asa-2I just received a letter from the UK Advertising Standards Authority regarding a complaint made by myself and others about an advertisement recently placed in the UK press by the Church of Scientology

This advertisement gave the impression that the activities of ‘Volunteer Ministers’ were on a par with the relief efforts of such organisations as the Red Cross. Worse yet,  it appeared in “The New Statesman” (an otherwise respectable magazine).

In summary, ASA has forced the Church of Scientology to promise that it will not make any of the claims that appeared in this advertisement in future.

In doing so, the Church of Scientology implicitly acknowledge that they were not telling the truth about the size of the organisation, the extent of Volunteer Minister’s supposed ‘relief’ efforts, or the character of the Volunteer Minister’s activities. They also implicitly admit that they drew misleading  comparisons between Volunteer Ministers and “[…] large, internationally recognised aid organisations”…

As far as I can see, every particular of the complaint has been upheld.

This has interesting consequences for the Church of Scientology. They can no  longer promote ‘Volunteer Ministers’ in this way in future without attracting sanctions. The Church makes many other unsupportable claims, and this approach could be effectively used to prevent them for doing so.

Full details of the Advertisement, the complaint, the decision and the potential consequences after the break.

The Advertisement

Metro sic ad imageThe text reads:

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.

 The Complaint

I believe that this advertisement is in breach of rules 3.1, 3.3 and 3.7 of the CAP code for the following reasons:

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 proselytism, 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).

The Decision

ASA letter

In other words, the ASA had ruled that:

  • They inflated the Number of Volunteer Ministers and the size of the organisation that they belong to
  • They made a ridiculous comparison between internationally-recognised aid organisations and Volunteer Ministers – the two are in no way comparable
  • To call the activities of  Volunteer Ministers “Aid Work” is seriously misleading (they do not provide food, shelter or medical treatment. They only provide ‘touch assists’  – Scientology’s version of ‘healing touch’- and distribute Scientology leaflets).

And the Church of Scientology has implicitly admitted this is true  by promising not to make such claims in future.

It’s worth noting that he complaint was upheld in every particular.

The Consequences

Because the Church of Scientology agreed not to repeat these particular unsupportable claims the ASA considers the matter resolved. It will not proceed to a formal investigation (which could have led to sanctions).

It is therefore apparent that the Church of Scientology knows that the claims they made were indefensible.  To avoid possible sanctions they simply caved in. This has happened before. When called to account by the ASA for the dangerous medical claims they made in a website which I complained about. They also simply shut it down.

Of course, some will not that the ASA have closed the stable door after the horse has bolted. Those advertisements were meant to counter the bad PR resulting from the release in the US of Alex Gibney’s documentary film “Going Clear: Hollywood and the Prison of Belief“.

However, they have not got away with it altogether. Basic information about this complaint and its resolution will appear on the ASA website on Wednesday the 15th of July 2015.

Edit 15th of July 2015 – and here it is – 18 complaints against the Church of Scientology.

ASA ruling

Why did the Church of Scientology fold in this way. I suspect it was because if they had not, a formal investigation would have been undertaken by the ASA. If this investigation had upheld the complaints, the ASA would have published the full details, which would have been seriously embarrassing.

Even now, if the Church of Scientology is not true to its word, and breaches are brought to the attention of the ASA, another investigation will be opened. This one is more likely to proceed to the formal stage and result in sanctions (if anyone sees such and advertisement please contact me).

If this happens often enough, the ASA has the power to require the Church of Scientology to submit their advertisements for pre-approval.

Thanks to everyone who joined me in making a complaint.

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5 thoughts on “The UK Advertising Standards Association Acts on Scientology’s ‘Volunteer Ministers’ Advertisements

  1. Thanks for this breakdown. I thought it was pretty revealing, too, but also funny because of scientology’s claims that it would not cause the same problems in the future. They just can’t help themselves, though, so I think the likelihood of this repeating is high. At which point, an investigation could take place. Little by little their propaganda machine is being whittled away.

    • Yes. I try hard not to sound unreasonable when I am writing here – many readers may not appreciate how unreliable the word of the Church of Scientology actually is, and if you emphasise the fact that they routinely lie you risk looking as if you are writing propaganda. It seems best to let the facts speak for themselves, and let visitors come to their own conclusion.

      However, I don’t place a great deal of confidence in “[..] their assurance that they will insure future ads do not raise similar issues” either – and it is, indeed, funny (if tragi-comic) that this line is followed by a ASA’s series of points which make it clear that noting at all in the ad was true.

      Almost all of the claims routinely made by Narconon (e.g. that drugs are ‘stored’ in fat cells) have been similarly forbidden by the ASA, and I could spend my whole day finding them online and making complaints which I am very confident would be upheld (the ASA take pseudo-medical claims very seriously indeed).

      The fundamental problem is that Scientologists just keep doing it, under the guise of different organisations – it’s like playing whack-a-mole. This case is different because the ads were placed by the CofS itself, when it was anxious to counter the bad PR it expected to come after the release of Alex Gibney’s documentary “Going Clear”.

      I agree that they “[…] just can’t help themselves” and hope that I can spot it when it happens (or some kind soul will point it out to me).

    • As an atheist, I probably shouldn’t do this, but I can’t resist the following related quote:

      The wicked will see and be vexed, they will gnash their teeth and waste away; the longings of the wicked will come to nothing.

      Psalm 112:10

  2. Pingback: 'Going Clear' to be Broadcast in the UK.... More Narconon Horror - Scientology Bollocks

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