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A government investigation last week cleared the DWP of any fault over its discredited ‘Universal Credit Uncovered’ series of adverts, even though the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) found against the department last year.

In November 2019 the ASA upheld complaints that the DWP misled readers about universal credit (UC) in a national advertising campaign costing over £250,000.

At the time the adverts went out, a DWP internal memo boasted that: “The feature won’t look or feel like DWP or UC – you won’t see our branding, and this is deliberate. We want to grab the readers’ attention and make them wonder who has done this ‘UC Uncovered’ investigation.”

The ASA found that claims that people moved into work more quickly on UC could not be substantiated.

The ASA also found that the claim that an urgent advance can be paid to people who claim UC did not make it clear that this was a loan that would have to be repaid.

In addition the ASA found that the suggestion that claimants could arrange to have their rent paid direct to their landlord was not true.

The ASA partially upheld a complaint that the adverts could not easily be identified as adverts rather than news. In relation to print news the complaint was not substantiated, but in relation to adverts that appeared online it held that it was not clear that they were adverts rather than news.

The DWP was banned from publishing the adverts again.

However, an investigation by Government Communication Service (GCS) claimed that the ruling by the ASA in relation to the adverts not being identifiable as adverts was ‘harsh’ and that the DWP ‘clearly understood the code and made every effort to ensure compliance with this code of conduct’.

The ASA inquiry found that some of the statistics used by the DWP to show that people move into work faster on UC related to people who had only been in work for a few hours and were five years out of date.

The GCS investigation, however, say that ‘Specialist Media Lawyers employed by the DWP agree that the evidence base supports the campaign claims.’

In relation to the other complaints, the GCS found approvingly that communication professionals at the DWP have an ‘optimism bias’ and that ‘If teams were to adopt a more fact-based approach to campaigns the result would be dryer less impactful messages.’

The report concludes that only with the ‘benefit of hindsight’ could anyone have thought that the ASA would object to there being insufficient evidence to back up the claims made in the adverts.

In future, it hopes that the ASA will agree to have face to face dialogue with the DWP about its advertising campaigns rather than obliging it to communicate online like everyone else.

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