Fourth censure for Virgin Trains ad

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The Independent Online

Virgin Trains was censured by an advertising watchdog yesterday for leading passengers to believe that "turn up and go" fares were up to six times cheaper than they are.

This is the fourth time Virgin, owned by Sir Richard Branson, has been criticised by the Advertising Standards Authority in the past 12 months. No other train company has been criticised by the ASA during that period.

In the latest case an advertisement urged passengers to "catch the next train out of town" for £8.50 from London to Birmingham, £14.50 from London to the Lake District and £15.50 from Glasgow to London. In reality, the fares for those who fail to book ahead can cost up to £46.50, £94 and £96 respectively.

In previous cases this year Virgin was censured for claiming that new trains would be travelling from Euston when there was only one a week; that all trains had new enhanced on-board services when not all trains did; and that journey times had been cut dramatically when that did not apply to all services.

This time a billboard poster showed a mobile phone text message saying: "My parents want to meet you this Sat XXX" and advised the recipient to make a quick escape with a Virgin value fare. Only in a footnote did the poster make clear that the cheap tickets listed had to be booked at least 14 days ahead of travel.

Virgin said the headline was not meant to be read literally and was a "response to a set of overblown, modern, human situations and was simply an invitation to 'get out of town quickly'."

But passengers complained that the ad gave the impression that the special fares were available for immediate travel. The ASA ruled that the poster, which also appeared in several national newspapers, was misleading and ordered Virgin to change the slogan.

A Virgin spokesman said the company was "surprised and disappointed" by the latest ruling because executives had checked the wording with a "copy advice team" as recommended by the ASA.

Asked about the number of reprimands this year, the spokesman said that "no one should fall into the trap" of comparing Virgin with the 25 other train operators who did far less advertising.