Another year, another upheld ASA decision about a Ryanair advertisement, this time in the context of advertising flights during the pandemic. 

Ryanair are no strangers to ASA complaints. The cynics among us might think they believe that any publicity is good publicity. However, this time they have the dubious honour of having produced one of the most complained of advertising campaigns of all time!

Ryanair issued two TV ads (shown during Christmas and New Year) for its summer 2021 flights, saying that vaccines are coming “so you could jab and go”. The ads showed mainly younger people enjoying themselves by hotel pools, etc, with no social distancing or masks.

The ASA received 2,370 complaints about the ad, making it the third most complained of ever - no small feat. (* If you want to know which ad is currently in the No.1 spot, then read on - or just scroll to the end if you’re lazy.)

What did the complainants say?

Some complainants challenged whether the advertisements were misleading, as they implied that most of the UK population would be successfully vaccinated against Covid-19 by spring/summer 2021 and would be able to holiday unaffected by travel or other restrictions related to the pandemic. Others felt that the ads trivialised the ongoing restrictions and effects of the pandemic on society and individuals, and challenged whether the ads, and particularly the claim “Jab & Go”, were offensive. Finally, some challenged if they were irresponsible.

What did Ryanair say?

Ryanair considered that the average UK consumer was familiar with information about the vaccines, their roll-out schedule, travel restrictions and the inherent uncertainty in the travel industry. In that context, Ryanair believed the claims that “vaccines are coming” and that “you could jab and go” were not misleading to consumers, who would be able to make an informed decision about whether they wished to book flights. It also said that there was nothing in the ads to trivialise the pandemic or encourage people to break the rules to travel.

Clearcast supported Ryanair, saying that at the time they approved the ads, it looked like better times were coming and there was a real possibility of holidaying in summer 2021 without having to socially distance or wear a mask.

What did the ASA say?

The ASA said that consumers could easily be confused or uncertain about the situation at any given time and how it might develop throughout 2021. It was therefore important that advertisers were cautious when linking developments in the UK’s response to the pandemic to specific timeframes around which life might return to some level of normality, particularly when linking it to how confident consumers could be when making purchasing decisions.

The general context of the ad would lead viewers to understand the key message to be that being vaccinated against Covid-19 was likely to allow people to go on holiday without restrictions. In addition, the ads implied that viewers could feel confident about booking flights, because they would be vaccinated by the time of their holiday.

The ASA thought Ryanair were getting ahead of themselves, pointing out that the vaccine roll-out concentrated on vulnerable groups and the plan was that all adults would be vaccinated by the autumn of 2021, not the summer. In addition, the vaccine did not necessarily stop transmission of the virus, and so at least some restrictions were likely to remain in place. The implication in the ads was that most people who wished to go on holiday at Easter or summer 2021 would be vaccinated in time to do so; and that being vaccinated against Covid-19 would allow people to go on holiday without restrictions during those periods. The ASA said this was misleading and breached the BCAP Code.

However, whilst the ASA acknowledged that many viewers had found the tone of the ads distasteful, it rejected the complaints that the ads were likely to cause serious or widespread offence (a reasonably high bar) or trivialised the wider effects of the pandemic. This was something of a pyrrhic victory for Ryanair, as the ASA went on to agree that the ads were irresponsible (always a lower bar). 

Ultimately, the ASA thought the ads could encourage people to behave irresponsibly once vaccinated and to prompt those who were not yet eligible to be vaccinated to contact GPs or other NHS services to arrange vaccination, at a time when health services were under particular strain.

What do we say?

The charitable among us might have some sympathy for the airline. The travel sector has been one of hardest hit during this pandemic and it is easy to see why Ryanair would seek to capitalise on the faintest glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. However, based on Ryanair's ASA rap sheet, that might be too generous for some. The upshot is that, as this ruling shows, advertising and Covid-19 are not easy bed fellows (as the government has recently found out - yet again) and advertisers need to exercise extreme caution before referring to the pandemic in their campaigns – or face severe ASA-induced turbulence.

The UK’s most complained about ad of all time is of course gambling operator Paddy Power’s 2014 ad inviting bets on the outcome of the murder trial of South African Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius. It ran with the lines “IT’S OSCAR TIME”, “MONEY BACK IF HE WALKS” and “WE WILL REFUND ALL LOSING BETS ON THE OSCAR PISTORIUS TRIAL IF HE IS FOUND NOT GUILTY”. Unsurprisingly the ad, which generated a record-breaking 5,525 complaints, was condemned by the ASA on the grounds of serious or widespread offence. Perhaps more surprisingly was the fact that it was a press ad – TV ads generally attract more complaints.