UK Advertising Standards Authority Bans PETA Ad As “Misleading” and Lacking Substantiation

by John M. Simpson.

On September 4, 2019 the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which describes itself as “the UK’s independent advertising regulator,” upheld a challenge to an advertisement  that had been displayed for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) on the side of buses in February 2019.  As the authority described it, the ad “included the text ‘Don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes.  Wool is just as cruel as fur.  GO WOOL-FREE THIS WINTER PeTA.’  Beside the text was an image of a woman with the neck of her jumper pulled over her face.”   Ten complainants challenged whether the claim “wool is just as cruel as fur” was misleading and could be substantiated.  ASA upheld the challenge and ruled that the ad “must not appear in its current form” and “told PETA not to use the claim ‘wool is just as cruel as fur’ in [the] future.” 

According to the ASA ruling, PETA defended the ad with what it contended was evidence showing that the same abuses it claims occur in the fur trade “had also been documented in the wool trade but were not as well known by the public.”  In particular, PETA argued that “not all  domestically raised sheep needed to be shorn” and asserted further that “the need to shear sheep was a result of selective breeding over the years by humans to increase the yield of wool for use in textiles.  Sheep were being genetically altered to increase their wool production significantly and to eliminate natural shedding.”

ASA did not agree with PETA’s defense.  While the Authority considered the fact that the ad was “from an animal rights organization and as such that the claim would represent its views, it was presented as a factual claim and a direct comparison between the two industries.”  As such, the ad was contrary to the CAP Code:

In terms of wool production in the UK, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Code of Recommendations for the welfare of livestock had specific guidelines on the shearing process to ensure they were adhering to the standards of animal welfare which was required by law.  Those guidelines stated that every mature sheep should have its fleece removed at least once a year by experienced and competent trained shearers who should take care in ensuring that the sheep’s skin was not cut.  We considered that demonstrated that the main method of obtaining wool from sheep by shearing would not be regarded by consumers as being cruel.

The Code of Recommendations and additional guidance also included specific provisions for the health, treatment, transportation and living conditions that sheep should be kept in for the overall benefit of their welfare.  We considered this demonstrated that in the UK, there were standards to prevent cruelty to sheep.

We considered people who saw the ad would interpret the claim “wool is just as cruel as fur” as equating the conditions in which sheep were kept and the methods by which wool was obtained with the conditions and methods used in the fur industry.  However, sheep were not killed for their wool as animals were in the fur industry and there were standards in place relating to their general welfare including relating to the shearing process. We therefore concluded on that basis that the claim was misleading and in breach of the Code.

ASA expressly found that the ad “breached” two rules on misleading advertising and substantiation.  The ad failed to comply with CAP Code Rule 3.1, which provides that “Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so.”  It also failed to comply with CAP Code Rule 3.7, which provides that “[b]efore distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation.  The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation.”

According to ASA’s website, “[a]ds in the UK are regulated through a system of self-regulation” which is funded by the advertising industry.  The ASA makes sure that advertising across the UK complies with the Advertising Codes.  ASA, in turn, works with a related organization, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), which is responsible for writing the Advertising Codes.  ASA and CAP state that they are “committed to regulating in a way that is transparent, proportionate, targeted, evidence-based, consistent and accountable.”