Poster ad featuring RBS’s logo dripping in blood draws ASA reaction

Maria Nikolova

The advertising body determined that the claim in the ad that the RBS group has caused “suicides” had not been substantiated and was therefore likely to mislead.

The UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has earlier today published its ruling about a rather controversial poster ad featuring the logos of NatWest, Ulster Bank, RBS and claiming that these caused crimes and suicides.

The ruling concerns a poster ad for campaign group Banks Claims Group on the A23, south Croydon, seen on December 24, 2018. The ad depicted the front page of a fictional newspaper called “The Need To Know News” and features the logos of three banks: NatWest, Ulster Bank, RBS, the latter of which had illustrated red blood dripping from it. On the left side of the ad text stated “Did you know? [NatWest, Ulster Bank and RBS] Caused: Austerity, Suicides*, Bank’s Crimes [sic], Economic Destruction”.

On the right side of the ad text stated “MAY BOOBED COVER UP! GRG Victims contact: [email protected]”. Text in a circle at the side of the ad stated “READ REVOLT ACT CLAIM”.

A footnote at the bottom of the ad stated “*Source ‘Rope – Sometimes you need to let CUSTOMERS HANG themselves’ RBS internal staff memo ‘Just Hit Budget!’ and ‘Victory!’ emails sent even when customers died”.

One complainant challenged whether the ad was:

  • 1. misleading and could be substantiated; and
  • 2. likely to cause serious or widespread offence.

The first of the issues was upheld, the other not upheld.

Banks Claims Group Ltd did not respond to the complaint directly, other than in an email (with no individual sender details) stating that Mr Neil Mitchell had produced and funded the poster in a personal capacity. Mr Mitchell explained he used the BCG email address on the poster because that was how everyone from banks crimes victims, lawyers, media, cross party MPs and others corresponded with him. Mr Mitchell said the ad was placed for serious reasons, and not to discredit the RBS brand.

ASA noted that the ad was presented as a news item. It referred to various banks that were part of the RBS Group and “GRG victims”. This is a reference to the RBS Group’s business support group, the Global Restructuring Group, although this would not be readily apparent to most readers, the advertising body noted.

The Authority explained that between 2008 and 2013 there had been widespread inappropriate treatment of SME customers by GRG which was likely to have caused some of them material financial distress. The RBS Group received significant government funds in 2008 as part of a wider bailout package provided to rescue the UK banking system. ASA considered the claims that the RBS Group had “caused Austerity, Suicides*, Bank’s Crimes [sic], Economic Destruction” were objective claims which were likely to influence the perception of GRG victims and of readers generally as to the credibility of the RBS Group generally and about the scale of wrongdoing by GRG.

ASA considered that some readers would be deterred from banking with RBS/NatWest/Ulster Bank. More specifically the claims were likely to influence GRG victims’ views about the likelihood of success of any legal claim against those institutions that they might make and their decision about whether they should enquire further by contacting BCG.

ASA considered that the claims that the RBS Group had caused “Austerity” and “Economic Destruction” were likely to be interpreted to mean that the bailout by the government of RBS Group in 2008 was one of the reasons for the subsequent government policy of significant spending cuts after 2010. While the Authority understood that there were many reasons for the policy of austerity, it considered that it was reasonable to suggest that there was a relationship between the cost to the public purse of the bailout and the subsequent need to reduce government spending. For those reasons ASA concluded that the claim was unlikely to mislead.

The Authority then assessed the claim that the institutions listed had “caused … Bank’s Crimes”. ASA determined that readers would be likely to infer that either RBS Group or its managers had been convicted of criminal offences as a result of the GRG fallout, which ASA understood was not the case. The Authority therefore concluded the claim was likely to mislead.

Further, ASA considered the claim that the RBS Group had caused “suicides”. The Authority understood that GRG’s treatment of some businesses had caused significant financial distress to individuals affected. However, ASA noted it was not aware – either from the advertiser’s response or the material in the public domain that we reviewed – of specific cases of people taking their own lives where their treatment by GRG was documented as a significant factor; for example, by a coroner or other official investigation.

Regarding the GRG internal staff memo from 2009/10 quoted in the footnote, which included text such as “Rope: Sometimes you need to let customers hang themselves. You have then gained their trust and they know what’s coming when they fail to deliver”, ASA did not consider that it was advice to push customers to suicide. That is why the Authority considered that the claim that the RBS group has caused “suicides” had not been substantiated and was therefore likely to mislead.

The Authority concluded that the more general audience who saw the ad might find the ad overall to be provocative and the references to suicides in particular to be distasteful, particularly as the RBS logo was dripping in blood, but ASA did not consider that it was likely to cause serious or widespread offence. On that point the body investigated the ad under CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 4.1 (Harm and offence) but did not find it in breach.

ASA ruled that the ad must not appear again in its current form. The Authority told Banks Claims Group Ltd and Mr Mitchell not to claim that the actions of institutions had caused people to commit suicide or had committed crimes unless they held adequate substantiation to support such a claim.

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