Today, the ASA upheld a ruling against the campaign group ‘No More Silence’ for an ad placed in a business directory in relation to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
No More Silence is a campaign group set up to advocate for individuals who have suffered an adverse reaction from a COVID vaccine. The group claim it is “NOT anti-vax”, but instead are “pro informed choice” and “pro-science”.
The ad featured the headline: “FDA Document: 86% of Children Who Participated in Pfizer Covid Vaccine Trial Experienced Adverse Reactions”. The ad focused on a ‘fact sheet’ published by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), that was produced to give information to healthcare providers administrating the Pfizer vaccine. The campaign group claimed that 86% of children (aged 12-15) suffered ‘mild’ to ‘serious’ reactions to the vaccine, and that the proteins being injected into the children would be likely to cause conditions such as vascular disease and blood clots.
The complaint to the ASA focused on two issues:
(1) whether the ad misleadingly implied that the Pfizer vaccine was unsafe, particularly for children; and
(2) whether the ad was irresponsible and caused undue fear and distress.
No More Silence failed to live up to its name - they remained silent in response to the ASA’s enquiries. As we know, ‘no response’ does not go down well with the ASA, adding a breach of CAP Code rule 1.7 (unreasonable delay) to the list of breaches.
The ASA held that the headline implied that serious adverse reactions to the vaccine were common, and that it is unsafe for use in children. Upon review of the FDA ‘fact sheet’, the 86% figure related to the percentage of children experiencing mild pain at the injection site, not serious conditions such as blood clots. Therefore, this did not provide evidence that the vaccine caused adverse reactions, vascular diseases or blood clots. On this issue, the ad was found to be misleading, breaching CAP Code rules 3.1 and 3.7.
On the second issue of whether the ad was irresponsible and caused undue fear and distress, the ASA considered that the claims about vascular disease and blood clots would be interpreted by readers as meaning that there was a high chance that children would develop those or other adverse conditions as a result of the vaccine. It considered that this would cause fear and distress for readers, and may discourage vaccine uptake in children which would result in less protection for the child and the population as a whole. Therefore, the ad also breached CAP Code rules 1.3 (social responsibility) and 4.2 (harm and offence).
The ASA said that the advertiser must ensure their future ads do not misleadingly state or imply that the Pfizer–BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was unsafe for children or misrepresent study findings. They also told No More Silence and Postcode Pigeon to ensure that their future marketing communications did not cause fear or distress without justifiable reason. Finally, probably due to the lack of response, the ASA referred the matter to the CAP Compliance team.
This is not the first ASA upheld complaint in relation to ‘anti-vax’ ads this month. On 2 February 2022, the ASA also upheld a complaint against Steven Thomas for misleadingly presenting data about deaths and injuries from the COVID vaccine. This is also likely not the last, especially with both Scotland and Wales announcing this week that COVID vaccines will be available for children aged 5-11.
Given the risk that parents and children could be discouraged from vaccination based on reading the ad’s claims, resulting in less protection for them and for the population more widely from COVID-19, we also considered that the ad was irresponsible