Halfords Autocentres and SMMT in advertising row

A row has broken out between Halfords Autocentres and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) over advertising relating to the cost of car servicing at franchised dealerships. The SMMT complained to Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) about an advertisement at halfordsautocentres.com which highlighted apparent savings of up to 50 per cent on car servicing. The complaint was subsequently upheld by ASA who said the ad could not continue in the offending form.

According to the ASA, SMMT was concerned that the advertising was misleading and could not be substantiated, “because it did not make clear the basis of the comparison or take into account the class of vehicle or regional pricing variations.” They were also concerned whether the advertiser was comparing like for like services.

However, Halfords is not keeping quite about its view on the situation and has in fact cried foul. For its part, Halfords believes the complaint is designed not only to prevent consumers saving substantial sums of money, but also “undermines the SMMT’s remit to act in the interests of both the retail and aftermarket segments of the automotive industry.”

Halfords Autocentres chief executive Bill Duffy explained: “Under block exemption independent aftermarket service providers like us have every right to advise motorists of the potential savings to be made when they are comparing the price of servicing and repairing their cars – something which is of increased importance given the current financial climate. We are disappointed that the SMMT resorted to using the ASA as a referee in a battle between the interests of franchised dealers and the quality independent aftermarket, a dispute that will result in only one real loser – the motorist.”

Like for like?

Halfords Autocentres reports that it has made several concessions as a result of the SMMT challenge – at each stage clarifying the source of its data and re-phrasing the text on its website in order to ensure clarity and keep promoting the message to customers. And this is something that the ASA acknowledges in its ruling. The ruling, however, also points out the specific reason for the complaint being upheld.

After acknowledging the depth of research behind Halfords’ claim and the fact that the Autocentre network was willing to amend the claim further, the ASA explained that the problem was the comparison Halfords had made between their own time-limited, online prices and the non-promotional prices quoted by the car dealerships surveyed. It has to be said that the offer related to around £30 and therefore wouldn’t not have make an overwhelming impact on the cost of a full-service

Perhaps that’s why, in its self-proclaimed role as the ‘the friend of the motorist’ Halfords has refused to be silenced and immediately renewed its commitment to driving down the cost of servicing with a fresh advertisement highlighting savings of up to 40 per cent over generally more expensive main dealers – rising to 60 per cent if customers take advantage of a current online promotional offer.

Bill Duffy added: “Our independent research identifies just how much more motorists are being charged by approved dealer franchises in a large proportion of cases. We also have evidence that shows a worrying trend towards drivers delaying essential car maintenance in order to save money – so clearly any opportunity to cut costs without cutting corners should be encouraged.”

SMMT pleased that complaint was upheld

Nevertheless, speaking following the judgment, Paul Everitt, SMMT chief executive said: “I am pleased the ASA has upheld SMMT’s complaint about Halfords’ servicing offer which was found to have broken six parts of the Committee of Advertising Practice guidelines. It is important consumers are presented with accurate information and competition is based on fair comparisons. I hope all advertisers will accurately reflect the products and services they offer and avoid claims which don’t stand up to scrutiny.

“Manufacturer main dealers offer a high value and expert service to their customers. The investment they make in skilled and trained technicians, the access to latest manufacturer information and the use of approved parts ensures motorists who want to put their vehicles through a service, MOT or repair get great value at surprisingly competitive prices.”

A separate SMMT complaint about similar claims made by Servicing Stop Ltd, was resolved by the ASA via an informal resolution dated 19 September 2012.

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