When can we go away?
9 February 2021
Snowed in while locked down? What would be more cheering reading than news from one of the no-frills airlines that there will soon be a fast track for vaccinated passengers to leave these shores for balmy Mediterranean beaches, or as the ad puts it “sunshine destinations”. Ryanair recently put out the slogan
Jab and Go
This advertising campaign, encouraging consumers to book flights following the roll out of the UK vaccination programme, might have been a perfectly understandable response to the year-long shock of having very few passengers to transport and the equally deranging inability of citizens to travel abroad.
But it turns out that Ryanair were somewhat ahead of themselves, as the Advertising Standards Authority has found that it was misleading for the airline to give the impression that most people who are hoping to take to the air over the Easter or summer holidays this year will have had the Covid-19 vaccination in time to do so.
Ryanair’s first advertisement, seen between 26 December 2020 and 3 January 2021, began with an image of a medical syringe and a vial labelled “VACCINE” and large on-screen text which stated “VACCINES ARE COMING”. A voice-over stated,
Covid vaccines are coming. So book your Easter and summer holidays today with Ryanair. One million seats on sale from £19.99 to sunshine destinations in Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece and many more. So you could jab and go!
The television promotion showed groups of people in their twenties and thirties enjoying the holiday destinations. The voice-over continued, “Book today on Ryanair.com and if your plans change, so could your booking.” Large on-screen text appeared which stated “JAB & GO!”.
The ASA pointed out that it is not even settled that, post vaccination, anyone will be allowed to go on holiday without restrictions during those periods. As the weekly update put out by international law firm CMS neatly puts it:
The ASA also found that the ads implied that full protection could be achieved immediately through one dose of the vaccine, and that restrictions around social distancing and mask wearing would not be necessary once individuals were vaccinated.
Even apart from the airline’s lure of holidays abroad as winter expands into spring, the ASA found that the ads were irresponsible for epidemiological reasons. CMS observes that the ruling is of particular interest in its comments in relation to the “fast-moving nature of the pandemic response.”
[The ASA] refers to the evolution of the vaccine programme and government messaging from November 2020 to January 2021, which meant that consumers could easily be confused or uncertain about the situation at any given time. It also emphasises the need for caution when linking developments in the UK’s response to the pandemic to specific timeframes for life returning to normal. Advertisers seeking to promote products and services in response to public events should take note of the need for caution, and the potential for consumer uncertainty, in similar circumstances.
…we considered that based on the information available at the time it was clear that it was highly unlikely that societal groups outside of phase one of the rollout would be maximally protected in time to holiday in either summer or Easter 2021.
Ryanair sought to protect their marketing campaign by arguing that they did not make any claims concerning who would be vaccinated, when they would be vaccinated, how vaccines were to be administered or how long it would take to achieve maximal protection once vaccinated. Nor did they claim that vaccinations were a prerequisite to travel. Much turned upon the cautionary wording such as the conditional term “could” in the phrase “So you could jab and go”. This word “could” was to make it clear that not everybody would be able to be vaccinated by summer. The airline said in its defence that it had avoided any guarantee in the advertisement that people who wished to travel at Easter or summer 2021 would be vaccinated in time to do so.
Ryanair said that from autumn 2020 the public had received almost daily updates from the media, NHS and Government concerning the progress of approval of vaccines, the planned vaccination rollout through the NHS, and that the three vaccines closest to approval (Pfizer/BioNTech, Oxford/AstraZeneca and Moderna) would require two doses.
Ryanair argued that the government had used the term “jab” to describe the vaccines and they did not think viewers would interpret the word, when used in the ads, to refer to a single dose of vaccine.
In that context it would be clear to viewers that the ads did not imply that someone could have a single dose of vaccine and experience immediate immunity, enabling them to go on holiday. None of their advertisements made any claims concerning who would be vaccinated, when they would be vaccinated, how vaccines would be administered, or how long it would take for people to become fully protected. They also said that the word “could” in the claim avoided any guarantee that people who wished to travel would be vaccinated in time to do so.
The airline also argued, in response to the complaints that their advertisement was offensive, that
The term “jab” had been used widely to describe vaccines, including by the Government, and so they did not consider the language used was insensitive.
…. the ads did not trivialise the need to prioritise the rollout of the vaccine to vulnerable individuals, or encourage individuals to try to ‘jump the queue’. They highlighted that was not possible given that the vaccine was only available to those invited to make an appointment by the NHS based on the phased rollout schedule, and they considered the public was aware of that.
The ASA weren’t having anything of it.
The overall presentation of the advertisement included images of a syringe and vaccine vial, and of holidaymakers shown close together and without masks. This is a reminder that ads should always be reviewed as a whole, and claims considered in context.
To be fair, advertisements such as the one under attack here, are always going to be economical with the truth. Ryanair’s marketers said that, at the time they cleared the scripts, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine had just been approved, England was coming out of its second lockdown, and the government had announced that families would be able to meet at Christmas. They also emphasised the words “vaccines are coming”, which suggested a rollout rather than that vaccines were available to everyone immediately.
The word “could” was very much at the centre of this dispute. In the ASA’s view, the word “could”, in the claim “so you could jab and go!”, was overridden by the overall impact of the other elements of the ad.
These included the imagery of the syringe and vaccine vial, the claim “vaccines are coming”, and the large on-screen text “JAB & GO!” It also included scenes of people shown close together, jumping into a pool, and of a couple being served by a waiter, none of whom were wearing masks. In that context the ASA considered that viewers would understand the key message of the ads to be that once vaccinated against Covid-19 people could go on holiday without restrictions
Ryanair’s suggestion that even vaccinated people could travel abroad “without restrictions” in the spring was found by the ASA to be in breach of the rules on misleading advertising (BCAP Code rule 3.1).
The ASA considered this could encourage vaccinated individuals to disregard or lessen their adherence to restrictions, which in the short term could expose them to the risk of serious illness, and in the longer term might result in them spreading the virus. As such, the ASA found the ads could encourage people to behave irresponsibly once vaccinated.
The ASA therefore concluded the ads were irresponsible and breached BCAP Code rule 1.2 (Responsible advertising).
But they dismissed the complaint that the advertising was offensive.
Many complainants felt that the way in which the ads linked the start of the vaccine rollout to being able to go on holiday trivialised the need to prioritise the vaccine to those who were most medically vulnerable, and was insensitive to the pandemic’s impact on those who had been ill or who had lost someone to Covid-19, who worked on the frontline or who would not be able to be vaccinated.
However, the advertisement did not make any reference to those groups and whilst the tone was “celebratory” and the ASA did not consider it trivialised the wider impacts of the pandemic.
Whilst we acknowledged that many viewers had found the tone of the ads distasteful we considered they were unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.
Advertising plays on a number of human instincts, such as fear, boredom, worry about stigma, and above all, a drive for in-group status. A combination of these with the daily C-19 data, lack of reliable information about the vaccination programme creates a perfect storm for advertisers. Ryanair cannot be unique in taking advantage of this storm, and the Advertising Standards Authority may have underestimated, in their condemnation of the airline’s marketing ploy, the intelligence of the general public to separate the real from the aspirational.
With thanks to Stuart Helmer and Aysha Kaplankiran of CMS for their excellent summary of the ASA ruling.