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Pension provider told to take down ‘threatening’ advert

Workplace provider Smart Pension has been told not to publish an advertisement again after a complaint to the marketing standards watchdog over its “threatening” tone.

In November last year, Smart Pension sent a letter to business owners, stating that “failing to set up your workplace pension now could soon blow a serious hole in company finances”.

It featured a box where the company’s name was included alongside the question “is your deadline just days away?”.

The letter then encouraged businesses to “get compliant in minutes,” and that using Smart Pension, “it takes just minutes to set up for free”.

A complainant reported the letter to the Advertising Standards Authority, challenging whether it was clear it was a marketing communication, and whether it misleadingly looked like an official communication.

The complaint also claimed that the advert “was likely to cause undue distress, because they believed that the tone of the advert was threatening”.

The ASA found in Smart Pension’s favour on the first two points, noting that text indicating it was a marketing communication featured prominantly, along with Smart Pension’s branding, not any official government logos.

However, the ASA ruled that the advert must not appear again in that format because it was likely to cause distress.

The ruling reads: “We acknowledged that it was the case that companies that did not set up a workplace pension for their employees could be subject to fines or legal action, and we considered that it would not necessarily be problematic to reference that in an ad relating to the provision of such pensions.  However, the ad opened with a warning that failure to set up a pension could ‘blow a hole in company finances’ and the first two paragraphs mentioned fines and prison sentences.

“We considered that the ad placed a heavy emphasis on those potential consequences for failing to set up a workplace pension, rather than on the potential benefits of using Smart Pension.”

The ASA was also critical of the advert for stressing on several occasions that time was limited for businesses to make their decision.

It said: “We considered that those statements, taken together with the emphasis placed on the potential negative consequences rather than on emphasising the benefits of Smart Pension’s own pension, meant that the ad was likely to cause distress to recipients without justifiable reason.”

The ruling is the third to go against Smart Pension, after the ASA also upheld complaints in September last year and November 2016 against the provider.

A spokeswoman for Smart Pension says: “We are disappointed and confused with the ruling from the ASA and are seeking an independent review. The communication in question simply stated that employers could receive severe penalties for not complying with their auto enrolment duties and highlighted the consequences of not doing so.

“The volume of enforcement activity from The Pensions Regulator recently shows that this is a truthful statement of fact.

“The ASA has seen previous versions of this communication, including the two paragraphs now in question, and has not raised any issue before. The communication has not been issued since January 2018 so there is now not even an issue to resolve.

“Our team works hard to develop engaging, informing and compliant marketing communication materials to aid employers to meet their legal duties under government legislation.”

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