ASA ruling on Ryanair's claim: "Europe's number one airline"?
How will the ASA interpret a claim to be "number one" in the context of widespread negative publicity?
The ruling related to three ads for Ryanair in September and October 2017:
- a TV ad, which featured images of people travelling on a Ryanair plane.The voice-over stated "Discover why more and more people are choosing Europe's number one airline." On-screen text stated "IATA Scheduled passengers carried: 2016".
- a radio ad, which featured the claim "Discover why we're Europe's number one airline."
- a poster, seen on the London Underground, which featured the claim "EUROPE's NO.1 AIRLINE".
Thirteen complainants (who noted that Ryanair had cancelled many of its flights in September and October 2017) challenged whether the claim "Europe's number one airline" in the above ads was misleading.
Ryanair said that the claim "Europe's number one airline" was a statement of fact, supported by a third-party statistical report, and was therefore not misleading. Ryanair said that the claim was based on the most recent International Air Transport Association (IATA) World Air Transport Statistics 2017 report for air travel in 2016, which found that Ryanair was the world's largest airline for international flights and Europe's largest airline for international and domestic flights combined.
Ryanair said that its cancellations of flights in late 2017 did not materially alter that statement of fact. The cancellations affected less than 0.5% of its 129 million customers in 2017. Further, Ryanair's October 2017 traffic grew by 8% even when the flight cancellations were included.
Ryanair contended that the on-screen text "IATA Scheduled passengers carried: 2016" in the TV ad was sufficiently clear to communicate the basis of their claim. The radio ad had directed consumers to the Ryanair website for full details of what the claim was based on. Ryanair conceded that, due to an oversight, the same qualification was not included in the poster ad, but said that they had taken steps to ensure that it did not happen again.
The ASA considered that consumers were likely to interpret the claim "Europe's number one airline" in each ad to mean that, over a reasonable period before the ads were produced, Ryanair had carried more passengers than any other European airline. That was an objective claim. The ASA acknowledged that many of the complainant's views were that it was not their personal number one airline due to the recent cancellations. Nevertheless the ASA considered that the complainants and other consumers would still interpret the claim to be an objective statement about the number of passengers carried.
The IATA report showed that Ryanair had carried more scheduled passengers on domestic and international flights combined than any other European airline and was appropriate to substantiate the claim. The ASA considered that the most recent report from IATA was appropriate to substantiate the claim.
Further, there was no indication that the flight cancellations would affect the accuracy of that claim. The ASA noted that Ryanair had carried over 40 million passengers more than the European airline ranked second by IATA, and the number of flight cancellations in 2017 was less than 645,000.
Because the most recent available figures showed that Ryanair had carried more passengers than any other European airline, the ASA concluded that the claim "Europe's number one airline" was unlikely to mislead consumers.
Why is it important?
Consumers will almost always interpret a 'number one' claim to be an objective statement about market position, akin to 'best-selling'. That is the view of the ASA, underscored by this ruling. The effect of this is two-fold. Firstly, any advertiser using a 'number one' claim must be able to substantiate it with evidence. Often this evidence will be in the form of an advertiser's own research into its position in the market in relation to its competitors, although it may be acceptable to rely on independent third party data. Secondly, an objective 'number one' claim will not be held to be misleading simply because of the subjective views of consumers.
Any practical tips?
This decision is a reminder of the benefits to advertisers of treating 'number one' claims with caution. It is essential to hold appropriate substantiating evidence, refer to that evidence in the ad, and use adequate qualifications (eg Europe's number one airline). Exercising good discipline from the outset should help prevent complaints arising in the first place, noting that these complaints had come at a particularly difficult time for Ryanair, with negative reports on social and mainstream media regarding its cancelled flights.
Advertisers will take comfort from the fact that they can still be 'number one' in the context of negative publicity and the subjective views of the public. But note that it's generally wise to only use 'number one' when you mean 'best seller'. The ASA has consistently held that consumers will interpret 'number one' to mean the market leader, so consider using different language if the intention is to make some other claim.