Misleading, untruthful, inaccurate: the verdict on British Gas adverts

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The Independent Online

Britain's biggest energy supplier, British Gas, has been accused of playing dirty in the industry's price wars after the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned its advertising for the seventh time this year.

In a ruling published today, the ASA judged that television and press adverts promoting the British Gas "price protection" promise broke its rules eight times.

The adjudication brings to 28 the number of times the company has breached the advertising industry's regulations this year - a record so bad that the ASA has summoned British Gas to a meeting to discuss its behaviour.

The company could be ordered to have all its adverts vetted or, in an "extreme" case, be referred to the Office of Fair Trading for prosecution.

In the past year, British Gas adverts have been found to misleading, untruthful, inaccurate, denigratory or to have infringed rules on personal distress, comparisons or qualifications.

The ASA ruled earlier this year that British Gas television adverts should not have implied that its engineers would respond immediately to problems all year round. British Gas also wrongly claimed that it was cheaper than its rivals and misleadingly suggested that departing customers would lose access to its engineers.

British Gas wrongly emphasised the French ownership of a rival supplier in press adverts this autumn. And, in the latest ruling, it was found to have ignored a price rise and failed to mention that a price guarantee would increase bills for gas customers.

The former state gas monopoly lost a million customers last year and an estimated 500,000 customers in the first half of this year. As it approaches another winter of fierce price competition, it retains a total of about 11 million customers. According to Energywatch, the industry watchdog, British Gas is using advertising to circumvent an agreement on rogue doorstep selling practices. A spokeswoman said: "British Gas should be ashamed of attempting to exploit consumers on such a scale."

British Gas stoutly defended its record. "There's no apology," said a spokesman. "Out of the six energy companies our record is extremely good. In Energywatch's own league tables we are doing demonstrably well."

Energywatch's tables for complaints this summer show that British Gas is second best on billing and third best on sales and transfers of the six suppliers.

British Gas said its television advertisements had been "vetted" by the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre prior to transmission. "We asked to see the ASA to iron this out," the spokesman insisted.

Kevin Miles, of the rival supplier Npower, commented: "Unfortunately the ASA rulings seem to have had little or no impact because they come after the campaigns have run their course. This means British Gas is able to run complete campaigns without fear of penalty. How many yellow cards does it take before you get a red one?"