Both sides of the European referendum debate have been slammed for trying to hoodwink consumers with their direct mail campaigns, amid accusations their communications have been deliberately designed to look like official documents.
The formal “Leave” or “Remain” campaigns do not launch until next week, but many partisan groups have started their own campaigns over the past few weeks, as the battle lines are drawn over the UK’s EU membership.
“Britain Stronger in Europe” has already been blasted for a mailshot which features a series of claims by “independent experts”, because the pro-Brussels group has left its logo off the document altogether, and only included its name in the small print.
But on the other side of the debate, a “Vote Leave” mailshot, entitled “The UK and the European Union – The Facts”, employs similar tactics, only mentioning who the leaflet is from in tiny text on the back page under its privacy notice.
The Advertising Standards Authority says it has received a number of complaints about mailings but has been powerless to act against political advertising since a change in the law in 2003.
An ASA spokesman told DecisionMarketing: “Complainants have objected that claims in the leaflets (about the benefits/pitfalls of staying or leaving the EU) are being presented as fact and some have also queried whether it’s clear the leaflets are advertising. However, political advertising falls outside the ASA’s remit so we will not be taking up these complaints.”
The accusations come amid a major row over Government plans to spend £9.3m on a nationwide direct mail campaign promoting Britain’s EU membership.
Royal Mail will start delivering the leaflets – entitled Why the Government Believes That Voting to Remain in the EU is the Best Decision for the UK – to households in England next week and in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland after the May 5 elections.
Conservative MP Liam Fox is to launch an online petition to stop the leaflets being sent to 27 million homes. Meanwhile, a separate petition launched by the Get Britain Out group has already gained more than 30,000 signatures – it needs 100,00 to be considered for a debate in Parliament.
Cabinet minister Michael Fallon said the leaflets to be sent to every UK home were a “moderate” response to a public demand for information. He told BBC’s Today programme: “The Government is not neutral in this particular battle. The Government takes the view that we would be better off, safer and stronger inside a reformed Europe.”
And he said there was a precedent for such action: “We’re entitled as the democratically elected government to set out our view, as government have done in every referendum we’ve had going all the away back to the original Europe referendum back in 1975.”
The Government says the mail drop will cost £9.3m, or about 34p per household. The designated Leave campaign, and its Remain opponent, will be able to spend up to £7m each on advertising and promotion once the official campaign period starts next week. This includes £600,000 of public grants set aside for free mailshots and TV broadcasts.
EU referendum to spark direct marketing bonanza