Late last year we received an email from Rogers and Rutherford law firm. Lawyers letters are rarely, if ever, nice to receive (and they're particularly stressful if you're a smart arse working in the media). But, thankfully, the letter was only partially related to something we had done and instead related to an ad featured on StopPress for Mobile AdVert (MA), the outdoor media company run by Urgent Couriers. The law firm was acting on behalf of the Outdoor Media Association of New Zealand (OMANZ), which "supports high standards of advertising compliance and industry self-regulation, consistent with ASA's Charter", after concerns about misleading and unsubstantiated claims in the ad were raised by association members.
The letter said: "On your website and in your advertising on StopPress, you make several claims about MA that OMANZ believes you can't substantiate, and which are therefore untrue, including: 'MA is the most effective outdoor media', 'Get your brand seen in greater Auckland by more people than any other outdoor media' and 'Get your brand seen by more people in the main centres than any other outdoor media service'."
Given these claims were unable to be proven, OMANZ believed they were in breach of section 13(e) of the Fair Trading Act 1986. And while no formal action was taken, OMANZ recommended the advertising content be modified "to ensure you only make true claims which you are able to substantiate". Phil Clemas, the new chair of OMANZ, says this is the first time such an request has been made (because its main function is a courier company, Urgent Couriers cannot be a full member of OMANZ and could only be an affiliate member).
This is perhaps a fairly typical case of a company getting into hot water for blowing its marketing trumpet a bit too heartily during the sales pitch, but what isn't so typical is that OMANZ also raised concerns about a possible breach of the Major Events Management Act (MEMA).
The letter said: "In previous advertising you may have breached Part 2, Subpart 2 of the Major Events Management Act 2007, by offering a MA RWC '1st 15' package...During the RWC protection period 11 September 2008 to 21 November 2011, advertisers must not make any representation in a way likely to suggest to a reasonable person that there is an association, a connection or a commercial arrangement between the RWC and the advertiser and/or the advertiser's goods, services or brands (section 10)."
Anyone that breaches section 10 of MEMA can expect a maximum fine of $150,000, which shows how careful marketers will have to be with the RWC word and logo police on their tails this year.
Clemas believes the whole situation was more a case of naivete than duplicitous intent from Mobile AdVert and he says Urgent Courier's head honcho Steve Bonnici "seemed to appreciate the advice we offered him" (OMANZ also pointed out to StopPress that media have a responsibility to ensure the Fair Trading Act is not breached with the ads they publish and that if section 10 of MEMA is breached, anyone who has received payment for the ad in question is also liable).
"As far as we're concerned, the issue's been resolved," he says.
Bonnici couldn't be reached for comment, but when the Mobile AdVert scheme kicked off in late 2009, he said he didn't have much in the way of data on eyeball hours for the scheme, although some “very rough and ready” research recorded about 3500 people looking directly at one wrapped vehicle in one day. In September last year, however, he commissioned three Auckland University statistics masters students to conduct some more robust research on the offering, with the results showing the cars are seen by over one million customers a month.
Bonnici said he wanted to find out exactly how much brand exposure the wrapped vehicles were getting based on potential views, rather than just kilometres travelled (cars wrapped in the advertising typically covering 2,000 – 5,000 kilometres of Auckland streets each month). And the research showed that a campaign of four wrapped vehicles for a four week period would gain over 1.4 million views.
The data was collected by the students travelling with Mobile AdVert vehicles at different times of the day and counting people in different modes of transport, including pedestrians, as potential viewers.
Clemas admits that getting the lawyers involved was something of a warning shot; an attempt to send a clear message that the industry body is getting its teeth back and will do everything in its power to avoid having the industry brought into disrepute by unsubstantiated claims. And while disrepute may have been more common back in the day, he says intense competition and a decrease in demand over the recession means the outdoor industry is not quite as attractive as it once was and a lot of the smaller players (sometimes colloquially known as cowboys) have been squeezed out.
"It's not an issue like it used to be. There are fairly low barriers to entry, especially for billboard operators. All you need is a couple of landowners willing to rent you some space. But most of the opportunities have been taken up by larger organisations who invest a lot. It's very competitive now."