AirportWatch calls on the Advertising Standards Authority to take action to remove misleading ads speedily
A bizarre court case has seen two environmental campaigners landed with a bill for more than £2,600 after they “corrected” a Heathrow Airport billboard promoting a new runway – even though the Advertising Standards Authority subsequently ruled that Heathrow’s claims were indeed incorrect. Lawrence Rose and Joseph McGahan were found guilty of defacing Heathrow billboards near the airport, and in their view correcting misinformation on the adverts in March 2015. The adverts about local support and about benefits to the UK economy were referred – in March or April 2015 – to the Advertising Standards Authority, which ruled in September 2015 that these adverts were misleading. Larry and Joe were given suspended sentences, after a jury trial, and fines including a cost of £1,200 to Heathrow airport for the cost of tidying up the damage to their incorrect and misleading adverts. They were also fined £1,440 of court costs. For many months in 2014 and 2015, Heathrow placed these misleading advertisements in very public places. Thousands or hundreds of thousands of people will have seen the ads. Though the Advertising Standards Authority eventually ruled against them, the process took many months so by that time Heathrow had had extensive publicity and been able to convey misinformation. AirportWatch believes this is wrong. The process by which incorrect adverts are removed should be improved to ensure unsubstantiated claims by huge companies, like airports, are not left in place for months after being challenged.
AirportWatch calls on the Advertising Standards Authority to take action to remove misleading ads speedily
16.6.2016 (AirportWatch press release
A bizarre court case has seen two environmental campaigners landed with a bill for more than £2,600 after they “corrected” a Heathrow Airport billboard promoting a new runway – even though the Advertising Standards Authority subsequently ruled that Heathrow’s claims were indeed incorrect.
Lawrence Rose 32, and Joseph McGahan 29, (1) were charged by the CPS and have been found guilty (2)at Isleworth Crown Court of defacing Heathrow billboards near the airport, in March 2015.
Using spray paint, they modified one billboard reading “Those living around us are behind us” to say “Those living around us are CHOKING” referring to the illegal levels of air pollution in places near Heathrow. (Image of the altered billboard below).
The other billboard read “Expand Heathrow and the economy grows by up to £211 billion” and they spray painted that to read “Expand Heathrow and you grow the economy by destroying homes.” (Image of the billboard before being altered, below).
The adverts about local support and about benefits to the UK economy were referred – in March or April 2015 – to the Advertising Standards Authority, which ruled in September that these adverts were misleading. (3).
The two defendants were today given suspended sentences, after a jury trial, and fines including a cost of £1,200 to Heathrow airport for the cost of tidying up the damage to their incorrect and misleading adverts. They were also fined £1,440 of court costs. (4)
The background to the case is that, for many months in 2014 and 2015, Heathrow placed these misleading advertisements up in very public places. Thousands or hundreds of thousands of people will have seen these adverts, either in the media, on the transport network, or driving around Heathrow.
Though the Advertising Standards Authority eventually ruled against them, the process took many months so by that time Heathrow had had extensive publicity and been able to convey misinformation.
The defendants defaced the adverts because they were untrue and their court defence was one of “immediate necessity”, as they considered the Heathrow adverts to be contributing to environmental and social damage being done by Heathrow, and especially by a potential 3rd runway. They hoped their minor crime of defacing the advertisements would help to prevent the larger ‘crimes’, of increased local air pollution, the destruction of homes in the Heathrow villages, and rising carbon emissions from increasing UK aviation.
Heathrow had a range of possible figures on their various billboards around March 2015. Indeed at the end of March 2015, two different billboards were spotted near Terminal 5. One said the economic benefit would be “£100 billion” and the other said it would be “up to £211 billion.” (5) This glaring discrepancy gave the impression that the figures were speculative and exaggerated.
The judge was aware of the sincerity of the beliefs of the defendants, and awarded the lowest sentences available for the charges, by the CPS, of criminal damage and intent to do criminal damage.
Joe and Larry commented after the sentencing: “We honestly believed we acted to protect the lives and property of those affected by Heathrow. We will not be deterred by this punishment and will continue to campaign against injustice.”
The case highlights a major anomaly in the system for regulating advertisers which is that most advertising campaigns last weeks or a few months while the ASA complaints process lasts many months.
It means that even when an advertisement makes blatantly false claims, it is normally able to remain in place for the full duration of a campaign because the ASA is incapable of acting fast enough to remove it. It means that the system is of little use in protecting the public from misinformation and lies of the kind peddled by Heathrow.
Sarah Clayton, AirportWatch co-ordinator commented: “Heathrow has spent an unknown sum, but many million pounds, on advertising and PR to promote its aims. Several of its adverts have been ruled against by the ASA. This has not prevented months of incorrect information being continually put before the public. With so much at stake, for many thousands of people, who are negatively impacted by Heathrow, this is completely unacceptable. The way advertisements by powerful, rich organisations are monitored and controlled needs radical overhaul.”
A complaint has been sent to the ASA.
Notes for Editors:
(1). The defendants both live near Reading. One works in market gardening growing organic vegetables, and one works growing hemp for low energy buildings.
(2). There were 4 charges. The first three are criminal damage, or intent to commit criminal damage. The charges were:
i). Damage to both sides of a Heathrow billboard on one of the roads near the airport.
ii). Removal of a poster from a bus stop, and spraying (I think) Stop Heathrow Expansion on the shelter.
iii. Defacing another billboard – that might be the one about knocking down homes.
iv). Possession of items (spray paint can (s), hi-viz jackets etc) intending to use it without lawful excuse to damage property belonging to another person.
The two were initially accused of conspiracy. Hence the trial was put for the Crown Court. The police then decided it was not conspiracy, but the case has remained in the Crown Court.
(3). “Advertising Standards Agency rules Heathrow ads claiming “Those living around us are behind us” are misleading”. 16th September 2015 https://www.airportwatch.org.uk/2015/09/advertising-standards-agency-rules-heathrow-ads-claiming-those-living-around-us-are-behind-us-are-misleading/
(4). The judge gave both Lawrence Rose and Joseph McGahan suspended sentences, for one year. There was a fine of £1,200 to pay Heathrow for the costs of tidying up after the billboards were defaced. The total cost, including the Court costs was £ 2,640 between the two. As Lawrence has a small amount of savings, he will he have to pay part by the end of July. Joseph will have to pay part by the end of June 2017.
(5). Both the advertising hoardings, carrying widely different figures of economic benefit, were seen on 30thMarch 2015. Heathrow display 2 versions of their “economic benefit” poster – one saying £100 billion, the other “up to £211 billion” … (Over 60 years)
The Airports Commission later came out with a figure of possible benefit of up to £147 billion for the UK, over a period of 60 years. Some of the Commission’s own advisors questioned this figure. The Government Department for Transport have a method, called Webtag, to cost transport projects. This indicated there could even be an overall loss, over a period of 60 years. https://www.airportwatch.org.uk/2015/08/analysis-by-aef-shows-60-year-impact-of-heathrow-runway-likely-to-be-minimal-or-negative-not-147-billion-over-60-years/
(6). Below is a (low quality) photo of one of the billboards near Heathrow carrying the advert.
Below is an image of the billboard having been changed to add “CHOKING”
(7). The two defendants were initially spotted defacing a billboard by a local bus driver. He reported it to the police. The police then arrived and arrested them.
(8). The Judge did ask is any of the jury members were financially dependent on anyone working at Heathrow. They were not allowed to continue on the jury. He is not believed to have asked if anyone had any other connections.
(9). The Judge said as all the jury were from west London, they would be well aware of the Heathrow issue (not sure the exact words – but colleagues in the court believed this assumption was not fully justified, as many people may know only the arguments put forward by Heathrow, with the advertising and PR budget of many million ££s, while the arguments and facts contradicting the Heathrow ads etc do not get anything like as much public media coverage).
(10). The Judge was at pains to find out whether the two sincerely held their beliefs when they acted. He accepted that they did. The Judge, in his summing up, referred to the death from asthma of a daughter of one of his friends from somewhere around Heathrow, which Joe believed was associated with Heathrow pollution.
When asked about the property which he believed to be in need of protection (in reference to the lawful excuse for damage) Jo had mentioned as examples homes in Bangladesh at risk from sea-level rise from climate change as well as the homes in the Heathrow villages that would be knocked down for expansion..
(11). The police made the charge of intent to commit a crime, having found a note in the back pocket of the jeans of one of the defendants and the key to a van. The van contained a bus stop poster that had been removed , spray paint cans and a camera that contained videos of posters being “modified”. They initially charged the two with conspiracy. This warranted a Crown Court trial. Normally mere criminal damage would be tried in a Magistrates Court.
(12). Below are links to 3 stories showing where the ASA has ruled against Heathrow advertisements:
Advertising Standards Authority rules against misleading “Back Heathrow” ad claiming 60% support for runway
April 20, 2016
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has banned an advert from “Back Heathrow” claiming that most local people back Heathrow expansion. “Back Heathrow” is a lobby group, funded through Heathrow with the aim of pushing for the 3rd runway. Back Heathrow ran a regional press ad headlined “Rallying for the runway” with the line “Don’t believe the hype. Most people living in communities near Heathrow Airport support its expansion.” They claimed from polls there was 60% support. The ASA says the claim was misleading, and the 60% figure had only been massaged up from 50% to that level by omitting the 15% who did not express an opinion. The ASA considered most consumers were likely to understand it to mean that a clear majority of those surveyed in the poll (the original sample) were in support of expansion. They ruled that removing the 15% was “not a suitable methodology by which to draw such a conclusion, and was misleading. The ad must not appear again in its current form, and “Back Heathrow” must not repeat these claims ” unless it held robust substantiation for them.” This is a blow to “Back Heathrow,” the strategy of which has been to try to convince decision-makers that a majority of local people back a 3rd runway. That claim looks flimsy.
Advertising Standards Authority finds Heathrow advert about increased trade breaches their code and is ‘misleading’
February 4, 2015
In October 2014 about 13 people send in official complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, on claims being made by Heathrow in its adverts. The ASA looked at 7 different complaints, and considered that 6 passed their standards. However, on the claim by Heathrow in its ads headed:”Expand Heathrow and its’s the economy that takes off” the statement “Direct flights to long-haul destinations build twenty times more trade with them than indirect flights” was found to breach the ASA code. The ASA say the claim was not adequately substantiated and that the ad therefore breached the Code, both by being misleading and by not having proper substantiation. The ASA say the advert “must not appear again in its current form.” They have told Heathrow “to ensure that they held robust substantiation for absolute claims made in their future advertising.” The ASA ruling also says the claim was presented as objective facts rather than an educated assumption and that Heathrow’s own report “One Hub or None”itself cautioned that direct flights would not automatically lead to more trade and that multiple factors could influence the amount of bilateral trade.
Advertising Standards Agency rules Heathrow ads claiming “Those living around us are behind us” are misleading
September 16, 2015
Heathrow Airport has been told by the ASA that its adverts claiming that “Those living around us are behind us”. Eight people had challenged whether the adverts were misleading and if they could be substantiated. The ASA concluded that the claim exaggerated the level of support for expansion, had not been substantiated and was misleading. They noted that the claims “Those living around us are behind us” and “Locals support it” were not qualified. The ASA considered that most readers would interpret the claims to mean that a clear majority of those living in close proximity to Heathrow Airport supported expansion. The evidence provided, however, showed that only 50% of those surveyed from ten constituencies close to the airport supported expansion. The ASA say the ads must not appear in their current form again. They told Heathrow Airport Ltd to ensure they held sufficient evidence to substantiate their objective marketing claims in future, and to ensure their claims were adequately qualified, without contradiction. John Stewart, chair of HACAN, said: “This judgement is not good news for Heathrow. It undermines a key plank of their campaign that they have strong local support for a third runway.” The ASA ruled against other Heathrow ads in February 2015.
There was also:
Heathrow display 2 versions of their “economic benefit” poster – one saying £100 billion, the other “up to £211 billion” … (Over 60 years)
March 30, 2015
Heathrow airport has two different versions of its massive poster near Terminal 5. They have the same text, with claims of the alleged economic benefits to the UK of a new runway. One poster says “Expand Heathrow and you grow the economy by £100 billion.” And other nearby says “Expand Heathrow and you grow the economy by up to £211 billion.” They cannot both be right. Is this merely a matter of picking wildly different figures out of the air? Heathrow airport responded that: “£100bn was our conservative estimate. When the Airports Commission analysed it they estimated up to £211bn across UK.” What the massive posters fail to say it these purported benefit are not for one year. They are over a 60 year period, 2026 to 2086. ie. not a huge amount per year, (£2 – 3 billion maximum, on a generous estimate) bearing in mind the huge tourism deficit (perhaps £10 – £13 billion per year); or the loss to the Treasury as air travel pays no VAT and no fuel duty, (amounting to perhaps £10 billion per year). But the Airports Commission estimate of £211 billion economic benefit from a new NW Heathrow runway comes with many caveats – by the Commission itself. They say the “results should be interpreted with caution, given the innovative methodology used…” So more that are difficult to substantiate.