Advertising Watchdog Slams DWP for Misleading Universal Credit Adverts

Advertising Watchdog Slams DWP for Misleading Universal Credit Adverts

6th November 2019 3 By Alex Tiffin - @RespectIsVital
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The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has criticised the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), for the manner in which they ran an advertising campaign for Universal Credit. The high profile campaign drew criticism from the beginning for the misleading nature of the advertorials that claimed to “debunk myths about Universal Credit”. Now the ASA has upheld three complaints, and partially upheld another, branding the ads as “misleading, exaggerated” and in some cases “unsubstantiated”.

When it came to light that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was planning a 9 week ad campaign in the Metro Free Newspaper on Universal Credit, alarm bells were already ringing. This because an internal memo revealed how the department planned to made the advertorials look less like an advert, and more like a genuine piece of journalism, aka; misleading.

Then Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd MP, stated that the aim was to dispel the myths about the Tories flagship policy that have been spread by the press and opposition party supporters.

Complaints That DWP Misled Readers

As soon as the campaign went live, welfare campaigners and charities were shocked by the misleading nature of the “advertorials” the DWP had placed in the Metro.

The government pushed back that all adverts had been published in accordance with the rules and it was clear to readers that they pieces where not news items but adverts.

As can be seen form a photo of one of the full page spreads, it does say “advertisement feature from the Department for Work and Pensions” at the top. However, it does not follow the Cabinet Office guidelines of including the DWP Logo. This was intentional as the previous memo had stated.

Advertising Standards Authority Steps In

The independent watchdog that oversees advertising; The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), stated that it had opened an investigation into various parts of the DWP’s campaign after receiving numerous complaints. Today they have released their findings, and it is very bad news for the government.

In a press release the ASA state that;

“The ASA received 44 complaints, including from the charities Zacchaeus 2000 Trust (Z2K), the Motor Neurone Disease Association, and the Disability Benefits Consortium.”

They go on to explain that they have looked into four specific complaints which may have breached the ASA code of conduct. The areas they confirmed they looked into are as follows;

  1. Whether ads (a) to (e), and ad (g), were obviously identifiable as marketing communications.
  2. The claim “MYTH Universal Credit doesn’t work FACT It does. People move into work faster on Universal Credit than they did on the old system” in ads (a), (f) and (g) was misleading and could be substantiated.
  3. The claim “MYTH You have to wait 5 weeks to get any money on Universal Credit FACT If you need money, your jobcentre will urgently pay you an advance” in ads (a), (d), and (g) was misleading and could be substantiated, and omitted significant restrictions that were likely to affect a person’s decision to apply for Universal Credit.
  4. The claim “MYTH Universal Credit makes it harder to pay your rent on time FACT Your Jobcentre can give you an advance payment and pay rent directly to landlords” in ads (a), (b),and (g) was misleading and could be substantiated, and omitted significant restrictions that were likely to affect a person’s decision to apply for Universal Credit.

Point 1 – Partially Upheld

The watchdog started with the easiest complaint first; was it clear they were adverts?

When looking at the print advertorials they stated;

“the font used for the label ‘ADVERTISEMENT FEATURE FROM THE DEPARTMENT FOR WORK AND PENSIONS’ was quite small…… However, we considered it was sufficiently clear and prominent in all the press ads that readers were unlikely to overlook it.”

So the first part of point 1 was dismised by the ASA as they stated that in the print copies, the writing was clear enough. However, part of the first complaint was upheld. The was related to an online advert appearing on the Metro and Mail Online websites.

“Ad g” is described as a weblink cited in the print ads that took you to a webpage which “featured small text at the top of the page which stated “Advertisement feature from the Department for Work and Pensions”, followed by the MailOnline and Metro.co.uk logos and the magnifying glass graphic.” They go on to explain the various sections of the website the DWP had created.

The reason given for upholding the complaint was;

“We considered that there was nothing in the general content or presentation of the web page which specifically made clear that the content was advertorial.”

Therefore, the special website created by the DWP looked too much like a Metro Journalist piece on Universal Credit, than an ad.

Point 2 – Upheld

A Picture the a DWP Metro Advert claiming that Universal Credit Does Work.
The Ad in Relation to Complaint Point 2

This is possibly the most damning for the government. This complaint looked at the claim that can be seen above;

MYTH Universal Credit doesn’t work FACT It does. People move into work faster on Universal Credit than they did on the old system”

Before I even give the ASA’s reasons for upholding the complaint, we should just consider how damaging this is for the DWP. The ASA, an impartial and independent agency have stated that the government’s claim that Universal Credit IS working, is no accurate. That is damning.

The Department for Work and Pensions defence against this complaint centered around three reports. Two from 2015, and one from 2017, hardly up to date. The ASA looked at all of these reports and found them to be reliable, but that the 2017 report hadn’t been independently verified like the other two.

However, the authority took issue with the methodology used by the DWP in how they measured people moving into work. As the 2017 report was the most recent, they used this as the measure of whether people on Universal Credit were “getting into work faster than the legacy benefits system.”

As well as stating the data from the report was not relevant to the time the ad was published, the watchdog criticized the meaning of “in employment” used by the DWP.

They state that as workers doing just a few hours a week had been included, this would not represent what readers would class as stable employment. This issue is one that has been raised on numerous occasions by welfare activists, as it skews employment figures.

The damning finding on this complaint was;

“Because the advertising claim “MYTH Universal Credit doesn’t work FACT It does. People move into work faster on Universal Credit than they did on the old system” as it would be understood by readers did not accurately reflect the evidence, we concluded the claim had not been substantiated and was therefore misleading.”

The Advertising Standards Authority destroyed Universal Credit’s remaining reputation by saying it is an exaggeration to say that is working as it is unproven. This is not what a government wants going into a General Election campaign.

Points 3 & 4 – Upheld

The DWP claim related to Point 3 is on the left, with point 4 on the right

The third part of the complaint looked at the DWP’s assertion;

“MYTH You have to wait 5 weeks to get any money on Universal Credit FACT If you need money, your jobcentre will urgently pay you an advance”

This is a very important one. As I wrote yesterday, the five week wait has been blamed for the dramatic rise in foodbank use across the UK and NI.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) defence of this is always; “we offer an advance, so nobody has to wait five weeks.”

The ASA states that this claim was not backed up with any contextual information, and therefore it was not clear to the reader that the advance was a repayable loan. Therefore this broke the ASA rules by being misleading.

When it came to same day payments, they ruled that the ads were unsubstantiated, as no data on same day payments is kept. Therefore the claim that Universal Credit claimants can “get same day payments” couldn’t be proven. So as well as being “misleading”, it was without substance.”

As an explanation about the advance was excluded this was also deemed to have broken the rules by being misleading, leaving this “MYTH/FACT” totally without basis.

Landlords

The final point looked at by the authority, was the claim;

“MYTH Universal Credit makes it harder to pay your rent on time FACT Your Jobcentre can give you an advance payment and pay rent directly to landlords”

It is true that landlords can be paid directly. In Scotland you have this option without conditions due to payment arrangements being the only develved matter related to Universal Credit. However, in the rest of the UK and Northern Ireland, this is not the case.

You need to qualify for “Alternative Payment Arrangements” (APA) to recieve direct payments to landlords. This could be if you are considered vulnerable, or perhaps have evidence to show you cannot budget. Either way, it is not a given.

“The DWP stated that “around 11% of all households on Universal Credit had APAs. They considered that demonstrated that the advertising claim that rent could be paid directly to landlords was accurate.”

It is fair to say the ASA did not see 11% as sufficient evidence that direct payments to Landlords are the norm. They found this claim to be misleading, unproven and exaggerated.

As the ads have already ran, the ASA didn’t have much in the way of enforcement actions. They ruled that they above mentioned ads, including their claims must not be ran again. Furthermore they stated;

“We told the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that they held adequate evidence to substantiate the claims in their advertising, to include significant conditions, and to present significant conditions clearly.”

Reaction

In a press release, one of the charities who complained;  Anti-poverty charity, Z2K said;

“Today, Z2K can confirm that it was right to demand that the Government is held to account for its nine week ad campaign in The Metro earlier this year, in which it repeatedly misled the public on Universal Credit.  The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has confirmed that there is simply no evidence to back the Department for Work & Pensions’ (DWP’s) claims about people being better off on Universal Credit.”

Raji Hunjan, Chief Executive of Z2K said of the findings;

“This is a huge win for the tens of thousands of ordinary people who are suffering as a result of a broken benefits system and whose voices have been ignored by policy-makers for far too long.  This damning judgement against the DWP, which finds it guilty of “misleading advertising”, “exaggeration” and its failure to substantiate and qualify its claims, reveals an attitude which is not acceptable in public service, especially in the Department charged with protecting people from living in poverty.

“And that is why today we are calling for an independent investigation into DWP’s working practices.  If it has misled the public on Universal Credit – its flagship policy – what else is it misleading us on?  The next Government must engage with the compelling evidence that points to the harm Universal Credit is causing, leaving many people reliant on food banks and others destitute. Enough is enough”.

“In an election likely to be dominated by Brexit, Z2K will not let this ruling lie and will continue to fight for the people whose voices need to be heard in the political debate about welfare reform.  That is why we hope everyone touched by the failures in the Social Security system to back our campaign demanding an investigation.  We are a small charity and yet we have called out the DWP’s PR disaster.  Now we need your help to ensure that people who are reliant on Universal Credit or other benefits are no longer dismissed and that our call for an investigation is acted upon.”

Z2K has launched a public campaign, urging all political parties to commit to an independent investigation, should they form the next Government, into how and why these misleading adverts were approved within the DWP. 

The charity has also reached out to the Work and Pensions Select Committee asking they undertake a wider inquiry into whether this represents a more fundamentally dysfunctional culture, one which relies on damaging propaganda to avoid engaging with the real experiences of people struggling to live on Universal Credit.

In the meantime, Z2K is calling for DWP to apologise for these misleading adverts. This is something that is unlikely to happen.

The DWP were contacted for comment but no response had been received at the time of publication.

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