The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) purports to be the UK’s advertising watchdog agency, tasked with issuing official rulings sanctioning British companies that engage in false advertising. In 1997, the ASA cited BSI for false advertising after a complaint was filed by ISO 9001 critic John Seddon. Seddon pointed out BSI’s false claims that ISO 9001 “improves productivity…almost always gives an immediate result in terms of productivity and efficiency, and that means cost reductions…pays for itself…staff morale is better because they understand what is expected of them and each other.” ASA upheld that complaint and found BSI was no truthful in its advertising and demanded the certification body make the appropriate changes.

At that time, ASA ruled:

[BSI] provided independent research information, which suggested that the application of ISO 9000 could improve productivity and efficiency, thereby making a company more profitable. The Authority, although accepting that this might be true, understood that it was not almost always true for small companies and asked the advertisers to change the advertisement to avoid the implication that certification would almost always bring about these benefits.

Fast forward to 2018, and one finds that not only had BSI ignored ASA entirely, it ramped up its breathless hyperbole not only to sell its ISO 9001 certifications, but the ISO 9001:2015 standard itself. This prompted a new complaint, filed by Oxebridge, which referenced the 1997 decision, while providing examples and links to BSI’s current marketing.

It’s not clear what happened in the intervening years, but the 2018 ASA is a very different beast than its 1997 predecessor. This time, ASA twisted itself into knots to yield what appears to be a clear predecision to clear BSI’s record, and enable the gigantic organization to continue to lie to the public about its products and services.

The Oxebridge complaint was first submitted in October of 2017, using the ASA web portal. One month later, ASA finally responded by making the false argument that it would not process the complaint at all because it deemed Oxebridge a “competitor” to BSI, thus prompting a different process path, including a direct and formal complaint filed by Oxebridge against BSI first.  I was forced to explain to ASA how Oxebridge was not a competitor to BSI, and cited ISO 17021-1 which technically prohibits BSI from providing the services that Oxebridge provides, namely consulting.

Things quickly went from bad to worse. In their response, ASA apologized for the “competitor” error but then telegraphed that they were electing to ignore the precedent set by their prior 1997 ruling:

Given your clarification of the distinct roles of Oxebridge and the BSI, we accept that Oxebridge is not a competitor and we apologise for the error. Whilst we note the existence of the precedent case, we note that the Code rules and our guidance on how to interpret them may have changed since 1997 and thus we consider that we would need to investigate the issues you raise “from scratch”. As such,  we intend to forward your complaint to our Investigations team, who will be in contact in due course.

I pushed back, indicating that my 2017 complaint relied on information from the 1997 complaint, which then prompted ASA to write another email, contradicting the first:

The 1997 ruling will certainly be taken into account during our assessment, although we can’t solely rely on it as a precedent.

So in only two emails we went from a “from scratch” process which would ignore the 1997 ruling to one that would take the 1997 ruling “into account.” It was clear that ASA was making up the rules as it went along.

In December, two months later, I then received an automatic response from ASA asking for my feedback as my complaint had been closed without any action. I again reached out to ASA, and was told this was yet another error:

Many apologies, that email was sent in error- I’ve just checked, and the investigation is still ongoing.

I then received an email later in December from ASA, saying the complaint was delayed in processing.

… I’m writing to let you know that your complaint has been passed to Lucy Crowe for further investigation. Lucy is currently on leave over the holiday period but when she returns on 2 January she will be preparing the documents necessary to initiate a formal investigation. It has taken much longer than normal for us to get to this stage with your complaint and I’d like to apologise for that.  Lucy should be in touch within two weeks of her return to provide a further update, including more information about the process we will follow when dealing with your complaint.

At this point I hadn’t fully foreseen what was coming, so told ASA I was perfectly fine with a few weeks delay.

In January, Ms. Crowe responded back by (again) trying to have the complaint thrown out, this time under a different false assertion. Now, ASA claimed that they could not file the complaint because the evidence I provided linked to a US website of BSI, and not the UK one. Crowe wrote:

I have checked the UK section and cannot see that those claims (which are the subject of the 1997 ruling) are appearing on the UK section. I am sorry that this was not picked up earlier in the Complaints process.

This in itself would have literally been impossible, since the US and UK websites included the exact same text. All Crowe would have had to do is use BSI’s search feature on the UK site and put in “ISO 9001” to find the offending text. Crowe’s email then provided yet a third interpretation of ASA’s policy on referencing the 1997 ruling, now saying it was being considered, contradicting the two prior emails. Again, it was clear ASA had no idea what its actual policies were regarding prior rulings.

Undeterred, I then submitted an amended complaint in January 2018, with detailed links to the UK BSI site’s offending advertising language (which was, in many cases, identical to the US site.) That complaint read, in its entirety:

In 1997, ASA found the British Standards Institution (BSI) in violation for falsely advertising, when a complaint was filed by UK consultant John Seddon for nearly the exact same allegations. In that complaint, Seddon pointed out BSI’s false claims that ISO 9001 “improves productivity…almost always gives an immediate result in terms of productivity and efficiency, and that means cost reductions…pays for itself…staff morale is better because they understand what is expected of them and each other.”

BSI has ignored the ASA’s ruling and only worsened its marketing since that time. On the following BSI UK websites, BSI goes far beyond the original deceptive phrasing in its marketing.

https://www.bsigroup.com/en-GB/iso-9001-quality-management/

That page – which is from the UK site — claims ISO 9001 certification can:

• Continually improve, streamline operations and reduce costs
• Win more business and compete in tenders
• Satisfy more customers
• Be more resilient and build a sustainable business
• Show you have strong corporate governance
• Work effectively with stakeholders and your supply chain

The page shows some data from a BSI survey (which is not verifiable) but which appears to DISPROVE BSI’s own claims, not prove them. For example, BSI’s own alleged data shows that only 54% felt ISO 9001 improved their competitive edge. That means almost half did NOT feel this. Nevertheless, BSI claims it as fact applicable to all.

BSI then provides a download PDF (https://www.bsigroup.com/LocalFiles/en-GB/…/iso-22301-features-benefits-2016.pdf) which goes far further than anything said either on the page above or from 1997, such as:

• Lower operational costs
• Reduce waste and increase efficiency
• Improve your bottom line
• Win more high-value customers, and achieve improved customer retention with better customer service
• Helps safeguard the quality of your products and services
• Internal and external communication is improved
• Business with a motivated and engaged workforce are more likely
• To remain compliant and avoid penalties or fines

These claims are extremely egregious, especially the outright false claim that ISO 9001 will result in a company “avoiding penalties or fines” or that it “helps safeguard quality or products.” Neither of these are true, and ISO itself insists that ISO 9001 will not improve product quality, as it’s a SYSTEM certification, not a product certification.

Then, another page appears on the UK site discussing the latest edition of ISO 9001:2015, here:

https://www.bsigroup.com/en-GB/iso-9001-quality-management/ISO-9001-revision-2015/

That page makes highly unsubstantiated claims, such as:

• With the new standard in place, organizations will find it easier to incorporate their quality management system into the core business processes and gain greater business benefit.
• The revised standard will ensure that quality management is now completely integrated and aligned with the business strategies of your organization
• Greater involvement in the management system by the leadership team will ensure the whole organization will be motivated towards the organizations goals and objectives.
• Introduction of Risk & Opportunity Management
• Reinforces use of the management system as a governance tool and will help identify business opportunities that contribute to bottom line improvements.

In another PDF (https://www.bsigroup.com/Global/revisions/Why-ISO-9001-is-better-for-your-business-FINAL-Dec-2015.pdf), BSI claims the new ISO 9001:2015 offers “improved risk management,” while ISO itself has clearly explained that it’s new theme “risk-based thinking” is NOT “risk management,” and they don’t want people confusing the two concepts.

Multiple independent studies have shown that many companies do not yield the benefits claimed by BSI, such as https://dspace.stir.ac.uk/bitstream/1893/101/1/Final%20Thesis%2019%20Sep%2006.pdf . In addition, despite occasionally quoting dubious BSI survey data, which is not provided for any independent analysis, BSI’s own marketing contradicts this data by suggesting ALL comapanies yield the benefits, despite their data showing only half do.

Please note, my company offers ISO 9001 consulting, a service BSI is prohibited from offering per accreditation rules, and therefore we cannot be deemed a “competitor,” but rather an industry stakeholder filing this complaint on behalf of the public.

ASA sent an auto-reply indicating receipt of the complaint on January 11th. On January 22, ASA then wrote to say it had been forwarded for assignment to an investigator.

At which point, the complaint fell into a black hole for yet another month. I wrote ASA in February to ask on the complaint’s status, only to be told on February 22 that it had been passed onto “Nina Singh” for processing. On Feb. 27, Ms. Singh then wrote and confirmed she had it, saying it would take two more weeks to process.

Two additional months later, on April 26th, Singh wrote back and attached a copy of a document submitted by ASA to BSI, formally alerting them of the complaint. This document did not include the text of my actual complaint, but instead included a watered-down version written by ASA (apparently Ms. Singh), which left out some details, and reduced the Oxebridge concern to a single sentence:

Oxebridge Quality Resources challenged whether the ads misleadingly implied that all companies would achieve the stated benefits.

As I’ve written about extensively, this is a common trick when filing formal complaints: the complaint processing body (typically, in my case, a CB or AB) will “paraphrase” the original complaint in order to strip out details and make it easier to come to a predetermined conclusion favoring the offending company. It was beginning to look like ASA was engaging in the same practice.

Then, ASA fell silent for another full three months. Now a total of ten months since the original complaint was submitted, in July the ASA wrote that it had concluded its investigation, and developed a draft resolution that found BSI had done nothing wrong. The draft ignored facts presented, ignored the 1997 precedent, and bent over backwards to exonerate BSI. I was told that ASA rules required me to keep the resolution confidential (another eyebrow-raiser), but that I could provide a response:

If there are further comments you would like to make before the report is submitted to the Council, please provide them in writing by 27 July.  If you have no additional comments to make, please let us know as soon as possible.

I then provided a response, as requested, pointing out ASA’s clumsy handling of the complaint:

The ASA decision is both disappointing and baffling in that it ignores both the context of the BSI marketing statement and literal wording. Furthermore, ASA backtracks entirely from a prior ruling against BSI for the very same issue, wherein the wording which ASA once found noncompliant was less overt than the current language reported under this new complaint.

Per the original Oxebridge complaint, we pointed out that in 1997 ASA ruled BSI was noncompliant for using language far less overt and breathless than the new, updated language. We also pointed out that BSI ignored ASA’s original finding entirely, and over time had only ramped up its exaggerated advertising language, humiliating ASA in the process. Citing bureaucratic procedures, ASA elected to ignore this portion of the complaint entirely, ignore its precedent, and ignore the facts surrounding its prior decision to cite BSI as noncompliant over far less severe language.

Next, ASA seems to have been hoodwinked into believing BSI’s claim that by saying something “can” happen, and then supporting it with unproven, unpublished and unverifiable “data” allegedly developed by BSI itself, this constitutes a valid defense.

Next, BSI admits that it not only uses the word “can” but also “will,” and ASA accepts the dubious argument that BSI’s usage of the word “will” refers to the ISO 9001 standard itself. This requires ASA to strap blinders on itself, ignoring the entire context of BSI’s articles; obviously, to sell ISO 9001 certification, BSI must simultaneous promote the ISO 9001 standard; the two are linked. But worse, ASA ignores entirely the fact that BSI prominently sells the ISO 9001:2015 standard as a standalone product (see https://www.bsigroup.com/en-GB/iso-9001-quality-management/ ), meaning that the misleading language is being used to market an actual product sold directly by BSI.  This is akin to the classic snake oil salesman claiming his own product cures cancer; in this case, BSI is using grossly misleading language claiming one of its own products, the ISO 9001 standard, “will” accomplish things that are impossible, which are not supported by any independent research or sources, and which are vociferously argued within the quality assurance profession.

In conclusion, ASA’s preliminary ruling is deeply flawed, as it failed to examine both the evidence presented and the context, and ignored entirely the fact that BSI’s language was being used to sell both certifications and the standard itself. ASA further does itself gross disservice by grossly contradicting its own precedence, set by prior rulings, ensuring that ASA rulings will be ignored by both consumers and businesses, since the process appears, at best, whimsical and can be overruled by ASA at any time.

The draft recommendation must be rejected and the complaint re-examined.

In response to this, Ms. Singh then wrote to tell me that my response was moot, adding further confusion to the mix as to why ASA asked for a response to begin with. Instead, Singh wrote:

While the ASA takes note of relevant previous cases when investigating new complaints, we assess each ad on its own merits, taking into account the medium and context in which it was seen. We will provide Council with a copy of the previous ruling when they make their consideration, however they will not be bound by what was decided in relation to a different ad in 1997.

As part of their response, BSI did provide us with their consumer survey. We assessed that evidence and the numbers in the survey did reflect the numbers which were shown in the ad you complained about. There is no requirement that the data that they base the figures on is published or that such a survey should be conducted by a third party. We consider the ad made clear that the figures were based on consumer opinion.

We have carefully considered your comments but we will not be amending the draft recommendation. We consider that the target audience for these ads will understand that the benefits featured in the ads were not guaranteed but were things that could be achieved if they followed the principles set out in the standard.

So here, not only did Singh contradict the ASA position on prior rulings a fourth time, she essentially admitted that they never had any intention of amending the draft resolution with my comments anyway, all but ensuring the “Committee” would rubber-stamp the decision and rule in BSI’s favor.

This is a huge win for BSI. Previously, the Seddon ASA ruling was a black eye for the company, but sat largely unnoticed on the internet of the 1990’s. A new ruling against them would have stuck around with greater, and potentially viral, proliferation.

But the real loser here is ASA, who proves itself an incompetent, toothless paper tiger, of no worth whatsoever. When presented with a clear-cut example of a company lying about a product it was selling, ASA ignored evidence and routinely argued on behalf of the company it is tasked with overseeing. They literally defended the practice of a company inventing “consumer data” and using that as a basis for making marketing claims, without attempting to ascertain its source or veracity. Under this ruling, companies could invent data that said “in 78.5% of cases, snake oil cures 300% of all cancers,” and ASA would accept it, on its face.

Furthermore, ASA proves it doesn’t hold much stock in its own rulings, and is willing to both ignore and contradict them in order to support a predetermined finding. Whereas presented with nearly an identical complaint against BSI and it’s “data” the ASA ruled in 1997 against the dubious conclusions of that data, in 2018 ASA accepts the data and the surrounding BSI miracle-weaving without so much as a pause.

In short, even the ASA doesn’t trust the ASA anymore.

It was clear the ASA never had any ability to enforce its rulings anyway, as seen by BSI’s willful violation of them, but at least now we know it’s not worth the (agonizing) time necessary to even file a complaint with them.

UPDATE 9/11/2018: Thanks to one of our UK readers, who pointed us to this ASA article which openly boasts about how they denied complaints in every single one of the top 10 most-complained-about ads in the UK, other than those where the ads had already been removed for other reasons. Not a single one of these complaints was upheld. The argument tries to make the case that “offensive” ads are upheld because “this doesn’t represent the majority of ASA’s work,” an argument which makes no sense since they then reveal that 17% of their work does include offensive material. Whether or not a complaint represents the majority or minority of ASA’s work should have no bearing on the validity of the complaint itself, but ASA is essentially saying it does.

This lowers the bar even further for ASA, which apparently is not even able to parse how people will view their own press releases, which openly admit they are toothless.

 

 

    About Christopher Paris

    Christopher Paris is the founder and VP Operations of Oxebridge. He has over 25 years' experience implementing ISO 9001 and AS9100 systems, and is a vocal advocate for the development and use of standards from the point of view of actual users. He is the author of Surviving ISO 9001:2015. He reviews wines for the irreverent wine blog, Winepisser.