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Pretoria - The South African National Roads Agency Limited is facing tough sanctions by the Advertising Standards Authority following a series of unsubstantiated or misleading advertising claims about its controversial Gauteng e-tolling scheme.
The ASA has warned that if Sanral continued with its current “pattern” of failing to substantiate advertising claims it could face further sanctions – including forcing the roads agency to submit any future advertising to the ASA for vetting before publication.
In terms of its procedure guidelines, the authority can compel repeat offenders to submit all future advertising to the ASA for “pre-publication” advice, and also to pay for fresh adverts summarising the reasons for the authority’s adverse decision.
In its latest ruling made last week, the ASA noted there had been at least three challenges against Sanral’s adverts over the past few months, leading to Sanral being ordered to withdraw or modify some e-tolling advertisements.
MISLEADING THE PUBLIC
In February, consumer Ivan Moor complained that Sanral was misleading the public by claiming that 83 cents in every rand of e-tolls went to maintaining, patrolling, lighting or improving roads, with only 17 cents going to toll collection.
This was challenged by Moor, who produced court affidavits from Sanral that suggested that only 58 cents in the rand went to road maintenance. However, the ASA decided not to make a ruling on the merits of this case after Sanral volunteered to stop running the radio ad that Moor suggested was misleading.
A second complaint earlier this year, lodged by Gauteng resident Steven Haywood, challenged the roads agency’s claims that less than one percent of e-tag users would end up paying the maximum monthly fee of R450, while about 82 percent of motorists would pay less than R100 a month.
Haywood argued it was more likely that 10 percent of motorists would pay the maximum monthly tolls and that less than eight percent would pay less than R100 a month.
In its ruling, the ASA Directorate said Sanral had been given “ample time” to submit credible evidence to back up its claims, but had failed to do so.
The authority therefore had no option but to find the claims were unsubstantiated and consumers were “likely to be misled” by Sanral messages in their current form.
In a third ruling last week, the ASA upheld another complaint by the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance and consumer Shereen Long that Sanral was “grossly overstating” the number of motorists who had bought e-tags in an apparent attempt to mislead and intimidate the public into buying e-tags.
The alliance complained there was no evidence to back Sanral claims that it had sold 1.2 million e-tags.
Once again, Sanral had been offered a one-month opportunity to provide substantiation, but had failed to do so.
In a separate complaint, Shereen Long said a Sanral advert was misleading because it created the impression that e-toll roads were safer because of good lighting and “the cameras watching over you”.
The ASA found this advert was also misleading because these cameras were merely there to produce photographs for billing purposes.
In a strongly-worded footnote to its latest ruling, the ASA said: “It is hoped the respondent (Sanral) will ensure it has proper substantiation before publishing claims for future executions as required by the code.”
“A continued pattern of apparent inability to substantiate statistics and figures may lead to the ASA considering sanctions as contemplated in Clause 14 of the Procedural Guide.”
This section of the code provides for pre-clearance vetting for adverts if a party has more than one adverse ruling within a 12-month period.
Before imposing this sanction, the authority would consider whether a party had attempted to “deliberately circumvent or flagrantly disregard” the ASA code, and whether it had complied with previous directives.
Commenting on the latest adverse rulings, alliance spokesman John Clarke said: “These ASA rulings are significant because they again portray Sanral as an organisation that lacks transparency and cannot be trusted with its misleading advertising and PR campaigns.”
Sanral has not responded to requests for comment.