‘Misleading’ British Gas HomeCare ads banned
The advertising watchdog also criticised similar claims made on British Gas’ website and Twitter. The ASA received numerous complaints from British Gas customers who had waited more than three weeks for an engineer to visit.
The first TV ad, broadcast in February 2021, showed the inside of a dark house, including unwashed dishes, and a dark fridge filled with food as someone picked up a carton of milk while a voiceover stated, “We can’t solve that”. The voiceover stated, “But no heating or hot water? We can solve that and help you avoid any nasty repair bills.”
Small-print text at the bottom stated “Available for 98% of UK mainland households. Exclusions and conditions apply.” Scenes showed someone using the British Gas mobile app and a British Gas engineer wearing a mask and inspecting a boiler, then stating “All done”. The voiceover continued, “Because with British Gas HomeCare cover, all parts and labour are included. Problem solved.”
The second TV ad, also seen in February 2021, showed various scenes in a house, including a man inspecting a boiler, filling a hot water bottle with water from a kettle, and covering children asleep with extra blankets. A voiceover stated, “Boiler playing up? Dreading waking up to a freezing home and an unexpected repair bill? Not when you’re covered by British Gas HomeCare. You’ll get boiler maintenance and repair with all parts and labour included.”
The ASA received 24 complaints from British Gas customers about the ads, including 21 who had either been waiting for up to three weeks for an emergency callout or were informed that one could not be provided.
There were also 13 complaints from Homecare customers who either had been waiting several months for an annual boiler service or were informed that one could not be provided.
British Gas blamed its poor service on Covid-19 and strike action. British Gas engineers staged a series of walkouts earlier this year after a ‘fire and rehire’ pay dispute. Unions claimed this led to a backlog of 150,000 callouts, although British Gas disputed the figure.
In response to the customer complaints, British Gas maintained that it had followed the Government’s Covid-19 lockdown and safety guidance over the previous year. It said it had maintained essential services, such as emergency visits, and temporarily suspended non-essential services, including annual service visits, during lockdown.
British Gas also said it was subject to “extensive industrial action” from January to March 2021, and coupled with the pandemic, that meant that some customers had to wait longer than it would have liked for a visit from an engineer.
The company said that the TV ads had been commissioned and recorded before the third period of lockdown began and the full impact of industrial action became clear. TV advertising was suspended on 26 January, with the exception of adverts that had already been booked and could not be rescheduled.
British Gas claimed it had taken a range of actions to mitigate customer detriment. These actions included paying for customers to purchase their own heaters up to a value of £50 or to cover the cost of transport to a friend’s or relative’s house.
Customers without hot water or heating for four days had the choice to either wait for an appointment or to arrange for a Gas Safe engineer to carry out the repair at British Gas’s cost.
Upholding the complaints, the ASA said: “The ads all presented or referred to scenarios where customers might require emergency repairs in their home and we considered that consumers would understand from them that HomeCare customers would be able to call out engineers at short notice to deal with urgent issues.
“However, we understood that the company’s ability to maintain service levels for all but the most vulnerable customers had been significantly disrupted by a combination of Covid-19 lockdown and industrial action by their employees. Given the timing of the ads relative to those events, we considered that they were misleading and breached the codes.”
A British Gas spokesperson said: “We’re disappointed at the outcome and are seeking an independent review of the council’s decision, which is contrary to the original ASA recommendations and Clearcast’s views. We actually completed more emergency and vulnerable customer visits in the first quarter of this year compared to the first quarter last year, despite Covid and industrial action which has now ended – seeing over half a million customers in total.
“We know there will have been some customers who felt let down by our decision to push back non-essential services, which was necessary to protect customers and colleagues as we worked under the government’s Covid restrictions at the time. We have since caught up on any non-urgent appointments and are up to date with urgent appointments as our engineers continue to work around the clock to look after our customers.”