ASA clamping down on what retailers are claiming products do

July 6, 2011

Fashion retailers need to think more carefully about the products placed on their shelves and what they say about those products as a result of recent adjudications by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA), British Retail Consortium (BRC) guidelines and a Government-commissioned review.

Reebok is the latest fashion brand to feel the force of an ASA adjudication following a complaint about an advertisement for its Reezig ZigTech trainers. The ad featured Formula One racing driver, Lewis Hamilton. He was photographed wearing the trainers whilst leaping through the air. Each page of the ad boasted various benefits brought about by the trainer, such as "Feel the shoe with the energy boost". Reebok also claimed "ZigTech Apparel is engineered with Celliant fibres" which "take energy emitted by the body and recycle it back to the body through the skin…resulting in an increase of oxygen levels".

The complaint against Reebok was that:
1. Reebok’s claims about the Celliant fibres could not be substantiated; and
2. the ad was misleading as it implied that the trainers featured had been made with Celliant fibres.

In response Reebok claimed that it had used "ground optically responsive minerals" to produce the Celliant fibres which caused "the wavelength of light to lengthen" and, in turn, "allowed capillaries to relax and be less constricted". Reebok also submitted two studies that examined the effects of oxygen levels in people wearing garments containing Celliant fibres.

The ASA was not convinced, particularly when it discovered that the second study noted that the mechanisms underlying the results were unknown and that further study was warranted. The ASA concluded that Reebok’s claims had not been substantiated.

Reebok did admit that the ZigTech trainers featured in the ad were not made of Celliant fibres at all. But Reebok tried to defend its position stating, "the brochure, although primarily concerned with the trainers, also dealt with Reebok Apparel that did contain Celliant".

Unsurprisingly, the ASA rejected this. It concluded that as it was unclear about which product or products the claims about Celliant fibres were being made, the reference to ZigTech in conjunction with the trainers was likely to mislead consumers. The ASA told Reebok to ensure that it held relevant documentary evidence to substantiate future claims, and to make clear to which product its claims refer. In the meantime, the ASA ordered that the leaflet must not appear again in its current form.

This adjudication is likely to heighten Reebok's profile with the ASA. Whilst this is unwelcome, what is likely to hurt Reebok most is the wasted management time, money, and effort expended in producing the ad. Certainly, there is little to be gained from sponsoring celebrities such as Lewis Hamilton if the ad in which he features is withdrawn.

Sound familiar? Earlier this year Jack Wills was censured following the publication of a "handbook" comprising a four-page spread of young models frolicking on the beach in the "university outfitter’s" casual attire, or rather lack of it. Again, this story ended unhappily for the fashion brand, with the ASA concluding that the handbook was offensive and unsuitable, and posed a risk to younger teenagers. Accordingly, Jack Wills was told not to release the ad in its present form again.

Contrast Reebok and Jack Wills with Prada which defeated claims of irresponsible advertising in relation to an ad in the Times, which featured a model who looked 'significantly underweight". The fact that Prada managed to successfully defend such claims when Jack Wills did not is interesting. Both the Prada and Jack Wills ads depicted controversial images. However, controversial or not, Prada was able to objectively justify its ad, stating that the model's appearance had been crafted (using certain make-up and lighting techniques) to look "more dramatic". Prada also provided further photographs of the model, which it argued was evidence that she was not significantly under weight. The ASA agreed, concluding that the ad was not irresponsible.

It is clear that the ASA is keeping a close eye on the fashion industry. Also high on the ASA's agenda is the protection of children from harmful or inappropriate material. Indeed, in recent years the move towards more sexualised and gender-stereotyped clothing, products and services for children has become increasingly apparent. For example, Primark, Peacocks, Matalan and Shoezone have recently been found selling padded bras, hot pants and high heels for under 12 girls.

The concern this has sparked has resulted in the BRC issuing new guidelines encouraging retailers to think more carefully about the products they place on their shelves aimed at children. These guidelines coincide with the release of a Government-commissioned review into the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood, which sets recommendations for businesses and their regulators, including the ASA which has been recommended to place stronger emphasis on the location of advertisements and conduct research with parents and children on matters such as whether the use of children as brand ambassadors in advertising should be prohibited. All this will take place on top of the ASA’s usual investigatory process, that is, adjudications.

Fashion brands need to ensure that their clothes, marketing and promotion are in line with good practice in all areas, not least those relating to children. Specifically, before placing a product on sale or publishing an ad, fashion retailers should question whether:

1. the product is appropriate for the target market; and
2. they would be able to substantiate any claims made about that product.

If the answer to either of these is no, then fashion retailers should question whether to proceed with the product, marketing or promotion. Failure to do so may result in the ASA becoming involved, and this can be a high price to pay.


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