AA Legal Documents
Law guide

Misleading advertising



Advertising is a vital way for companies to drum up business. However, consumers need to watch out for unscrupulous advertisers trying to sell goods and services which aren't what they're advertised to be. Some advertisers set out to mislead. Their adverts deceive or are likely to deceive their audience. These kinds of adverts are against the law. This page tells you what to watch out for in misleading adverts and how to help put a stop to them.

Advertising in the UK is mainly controlled through codes of practice. The code that must be applied will depend on the industry or medium of advertisement. According to the Advertising Standards Authority's codes, all advertisements must be 'legal, decent, honest and truthful'. They must also be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society and with respect to the principles of fair competition. It is up to advertisers to prove any claims they make. If they cannot do so, the advertisement must be withdrawn or amended.

In addition, the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 back up the codes of practice covering the various types of advertising and media. The regulations also prohibit commercial practices that mislead consumers. The regulations are enforced by the Competition and Markets Authority, and local weights and measures authority – the local Trading Standards office.

What to watch out for

Misleading advertising taps into a fantasy world. Gain muscles without exercise, lose weight without eating less, and transform your life by buying this or eating that - no worries.

Except that the world doesn't work like that.

Beware of products or treatments that are advertised as quick and effective cure-alls, of testimonials claiming 'amazing results' or 'complete transformations'.

When advertisers use phrases such as 'scientific breakthrough', 'miraculous cure', 'exclusive product', 'secret ingredient' or 'guaranteed to work' treat these claims with caution. Don't let unscrupulous people get their hands on your money.

Who to complain to

If you suspect a scam to swindle people out of their cash then report it. By helping to expose deceptions you will protect vulnerable people, and promote advertising that is legal, decent, honest and truthful. A list of different organisations to complain to can be found below.

General complaints

You should start by complaining to the ASA, which is responsible for the non-broadcasting media, about the content of an ad, unwanted mail or the non-delivery of goods, promotional items or refunds. (Note that the ASA is unable to investigate complaints about packaging or advertising appearing in shop windows.) The ASA is the one-stop shop for all advertising complaints, making it simple for consumers to complain about advertisements they find misleading or offensive. Complaints can be made online, by post or (for some ads) by phone.

Local trading standards officers also receive complaints. They can seek court orders to stop misleading advertising which is harming consumers, and also enforce the Trade Descriptions Act.

Specialised complaints

Watchdogs such as the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency handle more specialised complaints in their own areas.