“Our advice is independent and unbiased. Oh, and it’s free. How is that for a breath of fresh air?”
So says an infuriating new TV advert for the Government’s Money Advice Service (see below).
The service, paid for by an annual levy on the financial services industry which this year cost £43.7m, aims to offer unregulated information to consumers as a starting point to better understand their financial position.
The Government made a big mistake in branding the service as “advice”. If you are offering advice you must be prepared to take responsibility for the advice you offer yet, as a lengthy disclaimer on the MAS website makes clear, it takes no such responsibility.
This misuse of the word advice has created confusion at a time when the FSA says it is striving for an increased clarity of advice definitions through the retail distribution review.
The new MAS advertising campaign goes further in muddying the waters for consumers.
The words independent and unbiased have become synonymous with a distinct type of advice that IFAs are proud to offer their clients. The word “independent” can only be used by advisers who abide by specific regulatory rules which will become stricter post-2012. The organisation formerly known as IFA Promotions has for some time marketed itself to consumers under the Unbiased brand.
To suggest this advice is free is incorrect, the £43.7m levy is inevitably passed on to all consumers of financial products, and promotes a message which contradicts the FSA’s RDR aim of ensuring consumers are aware that advice should be valued and paid for.
The phrase “breath of fresh air” can easily be read as a dig at other forms of paid-for advice.
The MAS’s marketing campaign has also done it no favours with some IFAs who have been led to believe it will compete with the services they offer. A quick examination of the MAS website suggests the service is not looking to step on the toes of IFAs.
Creating more financially literate consumers is a worthy goal worth paying for, although the levy should also be funded by the taxpayer due to the potential positive social effects of the service.
However, rather than educating, the current MAS advertising campaign clumsily guides consumers away from the truth that good advice is a valuable commodity worth paying for.
You would hope and expect that FSA staff involved with the retail distribution review are pretty angry with the message being conveyed in this advert- a message completely at odds with the RDR objective of getting consumers to realise that advice comes at a price.
FSA staff are appearing at numerous RDR conferences and roadshows at the moment. Hopefully they will get asked their opinion about the advert and hopefully they will give an honest answer.
Paul McMillan is editor of Money Marketing- follow him on twitter here