ASA overreacted to Sainsbury’s ‘feed your family for £50 ad’, claims agency

L to r: Gratterpalm managing partners, Gordon Bethell and Gareth Healey

L to r: Gratterpalm managing partners, Gordon Bethell and Gareth Healey

Gareth Healey, managing partner at retail advertising agency Gratterpalm, claims restrictive regulation on advertising will destroy creativity 

The recent ban of Sainsbury’s ‘feed your family for £50’ advert by the Advertising Standards Authority led me to give the position of advertisers in the modern marketing landscape some serious thought.

The advert made the rather bold claim a Sainsbury’s shopper could feed a family of four for a week for just £50. On closer inspection, the ASA found the advertised meal plans provided just 75% of the necessary calorie intake for an adult, and the consumer would need to rely on snacks not covered by the £50 budget to make up the shortfall.  

As a managing partner of a leading UK retail advertising agency, I passionately believe advertising should be both honest and transparent in its claims. However, I am opposed to unnecessarily restrictive regulation; I fear we’re in danger of over-regulating the industry to the point where advertisers are so constrained all artistic licence will be lost and, with it, the originality and creativity that has made the UK advertising industry what it is today.

The advert in question received just seven complaints and it took the ASA the best part of 12 months to rule against the campaign. Personally, I believe this was an overreaction, and a clear case of shutting the stable door long after the horse had bolted. What I also find puzzling is why, if the advert was genuinely as misleading as the watchdog claims, none of Sainsbury’s major competitors made a complaint. After all, this would have been the ideal opportunity for them to create a media storm.

I suspect that Sainsbury’s knew it was taking a risk with this campaign; advertisers at this level are incredibly sophisticated in their understanding of both their consumers and the retail landscape, and those at the top will have been acutely aware that the advert was a potential banana skin for the company.

However, the risk was not the potential for an ASA ban, but the damage this could have caused to consumer trust for the sake of an advertising concept that, despite its attractive headline, was built on shallow foundations and was arguably misleading.

But are modern consumers really so easily influenced by intrepid advertising claims? By imposing restrictive bans on advertising, we run the risk of overlooking consumers as intelligent, thinking individuals, capable of seeing beyond a strapline and making up their own minds. Given the low level of complaints, I would argue even the most cost-conscious Sainsbury’s customer will have seen beyond this headline and started to have their doubts as to whether such a small amount of food could satisfy a family of four for a whole week.

I must reiterate, as advertisers, we need a certain level of artistic licence in order to do our job. Advertising can, and should, be a glorious combination of art and science that both informs and inspires people. In this case, the ‘artists’ at Sainsbury’s may have overruled the ‘scientists’ but, in my opinion, for this to lead to more restrictive regulation of the industry would be an overreaction and a mistake. Further regulation will leave advertisers virtually unable to take risks and this would not be good news for original, creative advertising.