A bit of a turkey: ASA rules against Aldi’s “Cheapest Christmas Dinner” ad

England and Wales

The ASA has made a significant ruling against Aldi in relation to a “basket of goods” comparison in which Aldi claimed to have “Britain’s cheapest Christmas dinner”. The ASA found that the claim was misleading for a number of reasons, notably because competitor prices checked in a normal trading period in November are not reflective of actual prices in the fast-moving, heavy-discounting run-up to Christmas. 

The ruling will have a significant impact on ads promoting products for a specific upcoming event by way of competitor price comparisons. It also casts significant doubt on the methodology used by Which? in compiling the report that Aldi sought to rely on, and reiterates important points on making sure that comparisons are clear and specific, and that the overall context of the ad does not contradict the claims.

The Advertisement:

On 6 December 2023, Aldi published a four-page wrap-around national press ad featuring an image of a Christmas dinner. The ad claimed that Aldi was “THE HOME OF BRITAIN’S CHEAPEST CHRISTMAS DINNER”. Additional text stated “REVIEWED BY Which?” and “2022 PRICE LOCKED”.

Small print at the bottom said “Which? checked the prices of 12 traditional Christmas dinner staples between 6 and 27 November at seven UK supermarkets and found Aldi to be a budget-friendly supermarket for a  dinner shop”.

The fourth page of the ad featured the same image and claims, with additional text “Sainsbury’s £44.81”, “Aldi £33.80” and “Swap & Save over 20% on your Christmas dinner”. It also included the same small print as the first page, with added text “According to results published by Which?, Aldi’s Christmas dinner came in at over 20% cheaper than Sainsbury’s. For more information, please visit www.Aldi.co.uk/which”.

The Issues:

Sainsburys challenged the ad on the following issues:

Issue 1: Whether the comparative claims “THE HOME OF BRITAIN’S CHEAPEST CHRISTMAS DINNER”, “Sainsbury’s £44.81”, “Aldi £33.80” and “Swap & Save over 20% on your Christmas dinner” were misleading and could be substantiated.

Issue 2: Whether the comparative claims were verifiable. (There is a specific, statutory obligation for comparisons with identifiable competitors to be verifiable. As summarised by the ASA in this ruling, “verifiable” means that a comparative ad must either “include, or direct consumers to, sufficient information to allow them to understand the comparison, and be able to check the claims were accurate, or ask someone suitably qualified to do so”.)

Issue 3: Whether the claim “2022 PRICE LOCKED” was misleading.

Issue 1 – were the price comparisons misleading?

Aldi’s arguments

Aldi said:

  • The claims were based on a comparison conducted by Which?, an independent third party. Aldi emphasised that the ad clearly indicated the source of the comparison and believed that including additional datasets would only serve to confuse consumers.
  • The competitor pricing data, gathered in the period 6 to 27 November 2023, was clear.
  • The ad should be viewed in the context of its publication date, which was 6 December 2023. Consumers would not understand the comparisons to relate to prices charged in the week before Christmas, because that would be impossible.
  • Which? had selected the products for comparison, which included a mix of branded, non-branded, and organic items of varied weights. CAP Guidance relating to “baskets of goods” allowed comparisons between branded and non-branded products, provided the differences were made clear in the ad and the comparison was fair and representative.
  • Aldi acknowledged that not all products featured in the ad were included in Which?’s comparison. However, they argued that these products were representative only and that consumers could easily identify which items had been compared by Which? in the website article.
  • Although Which? also recognised Lidl with a “Budget-friendly Christmas Dinner” award, due to a mere 4p price difference, Aldi was still the cheapest, and the claim “BRITAIN’S CHEAPEST CHRISTMAS DINNER” was therefore not misleading.

ASA Ruling

The ASA upheld the complaint, ruling that the price comparisons were misleading and had not been substantiated.

The ASA decided that consumers would understand from the claims that Aldi would be cheaper than any other supermarket for their Christmas dinner shop, including on a range of fresh products which could only be purchased shortly before Christmas day. As such, consumers would expect that the comparison was based on the prices they would pay in the week or so before Christmas. Because the comparison prices were checked between 6 and 27 November, and prices were likely to have changed by the time consumers did their Christmas dinner shop, the ad was misleading.

The ASA also considered that the ad was misleading because:

  • Consumers would expect that all the foods featured in the ad would be included in the comparison. Because they were not, the ad was misleading.
  • The weights of the products compared were in many cases different, and in some cases significantly different (for example, for own-label pigs-in-blankets, the weights of the compared items ranged from 175g to 300g, making the smallest item barely half the size of the largest). Without an indication of the weight of the product at each supermarket, alongside the price, the basis of the comparison was not clear, and it could not be adequately substantiated.
  • Further, the products’ weights and pack sizes were likely to influence consumers’ purchasing decisions. Without this information, consumers could not judge whether the products would be enough for the number of people eating Christmas dinner.
  • Which? had not awarded Aldi as the “cheapest Christmas dinner”, as Aldi had claimed, but as a “Budget-friendly Christmas dinner”. Although Aldi was (on Which?’s comparison) marginally cheaper than Lidl, the fact that the difference was just four pence was information likely to influence consumers’ understanding of the claim and affect their transactional decision, noting that their choice of supermarket would also be influenced by other factors such as distance or transport costs.
  • It was up to Aldi, as the advertiser, to hold adequate evidence to substantiate its claims and to make sure they were not misleading, regardless of the fact that Aldi had chosen to rely on Which? data.

Issue 2 – were the comparisons verifiable?

Aldi’s arguments

Aldi said the verification for the claims was in the Which? article, which stated the weight range of all the products that were compared, as well as the name of the retailer, the product name and the price. Consumers would therefore be able to identify which own-label products had been compared. Aldi believed the ad adequately directed consumers to the Which? article by including a link to Aldi’s website on the last page, although they accepted that the link was not included on the first page of the ad, saying that was because it was limited by space.

ASA Ruling

The ASA concluded the price comparison was not verifiable, and upheld the complaint.

Because the ad was a wraparound, the first page of the ad was the front of the newspaper, and the final page of the ad was the back. This separation meant that readers might only see the first page, and therefore any signposts to verification should have appeared on both pages. While both pages included roundels that referred to Which?, these were insufficient as signposts to where consumers could find the verification.

Further, even the signpost that appeared on the back page (“According to results published by Which?, Aldi’s Christmas dinner came in at over 20% cheaper than Sainsbury’s. For more information, please visit www.aldi.co.uk/which”) did not make clear that information about the comparison with supermarkets other than Sainsburys could also be found there. The text was also too small to function as an effective signpost.

Issue 3 – was the claim “2022 PRICE LOCKED” misleading?

Aldi’s arguments

Aldi said they used the “2022 PRICE LOCKED” message throughout the Christmas period, including in ads unrelated to the Christmas dinner comparison, and detailed terms were available on their website. Aldi believed consumers were familiar with the price lock message and understood that it meant that certain products were no more expensive than they were at Christmas 2022.

Aldi did not believe that consumers would interpret “2022 PRICE LOCKED”, in the context of the ad under investigation, to mean that all Aldi products included in the Christmas dinner comparison were price locked.

ASA Ruling

The ASA again upheld the complaint.

The placement of the “2022 PRICE LOCKED” claim alongside images of Christmas dinner foods, without specifying exclusions, would lead consumers to believe that the price lock applied to all the foods featured in the ad. However, the “price lock” did not include several items mentioned in the comparison, and several others appearing in the ad. This misled consumers about the products covered by the price lock.

Key points

This is a complex ruling covering numerous issues, with important learning points for anyone making advertising comparisons, especially retailers making price comparisons in relation to specific events or celebrations.

The key point is that it is unlikely to be acceptable to base a price comparison on competitor price data gathered significantly in advance of the relevant date, particularly if promotional discounting is likely to take place in the shopping period immediately before the event, and even more so if the featured products include fresh produce that realistically must be bought shortly before the event.

The obvious example of this kind of event is Christmas, but it could also include Easter, Mothering Sunday or New Year, or events such as royal weddings or major World Cup matches – indeed, any event where a retailer promotes a price advantage on products for use or consumption around that event by reference to a comparison with competitor prices.

Other key practice points emerging from this ruling are:

  • Advertisers cannot assume that relying on third party data, even from sources such as Which?, will mean their comparison is compliant. The ASA acknowledged that Which? was generally an authoritative resource for price comparisons, but it was still up to Aldi to make sure the comparison was fair and that it had the necessary substantiation in hand.
  • Given the issues with Which?’s methodology and presentation of data (for example, not stating pack sizes), advertisers should be cautious about relying solely on Which? data, at least until Which? updates its practices.
  • In a “basket of goods” comparison, no product should appear in the ad unless it is featured in the comparison.
  • In an important qualification to existing ASA guidance allowing comparisons between branded and unbranded goods in basket of goods claims, unless the products compared are identical in amount, their respective weights or volumes must be stated.
  • A “lowest prices” claim, and, possibly, any superiority claim of any kind, cannot be substantiated based on a negligible advantage; or, at least, the extent of the advantage (here, just four pence) should be stated.
  • A signpost to verification information must be sufficiently clear and prominent, and placed sufficiently close to the comparative claim, to function as an effective signpost. Placing it on another page, or displaying it only in very small print, are unlikely to be adequate. Likewise, referring generally to the source of the data, without telling consumers where they can find that data, is not enough. 
  • General price statements such as “price locked” (and, it is to be inferred, any other general statement such as “free delivery”, “free gift” etc) must either apply to all products shown in the ad, or be clearly qualified to exclude the products to which they do not apply.

Comparative advertising is a complex area with many pitfalls for the unwary. If you would like more information on how this ruling may affect your comparative ads, or help you to take action against your competitors, contact any of the people shown on this screen, or your usual CMS contact.