We Buy Any Car has been told not to use an advert and warned about misleading customers after complaints were upheld by the Advertising Standards Agency.
An email sent by We Buy Any Car to consumers in January and February stated: “Beat the price drop! The car market is entering a busy period which means now could be a good time to sell your … REMEMBER: The value of your could be a lot less in 3 months’ time*”.
A graph showed how cars would depreciate in value from “high" to “low” over three months. An arrow pointing to the current “high” value was accompanied by text stating “Time to sell your car?”. A second roundel pointing to the decreasing line stated “The average car loses value every month”.
Small print at the bottom of the email stated: "Pictures for illustration purposes only. Terms and conditions apply.
"*Webuyanycar monitor values of most (but not all) car makes and models over time. The majority of cars drop in value each month, but some do not. We are not predicting or forecasting a specific decline in car values as this is determined by market supply and demand. To value your with us please use your car details to generate a specific valuation for your car online at webuyanycar. The graph shown is used to illustrate the fact that cars generally fall in value over theime , in the future they may not.
"New car stock traditionally, but not always, decreases the price of most used cars. This trend would indicate that the price of your second hand model will decrease when the new '16' plate is released on the 1st of March.
"We are not predicting or forecasting a specific decline in car values with the statement 'Cars Lose Value Over Time'. We are highlighting that generally, the value of most cars lose value over time due to demand falling.
"We are not suggesting that the manufacturer detailed above will definitely release a similar model to your car over the next few months which will cause the value of your car to decrease. Assumptions have been made that with the volume of new car releases, a similar car being released to your car may impact it's current value”.
Three people complained the ad was misleading.
They told the ASA that, by not making the basis of the graph clear, it exaggerated how much a car’s value would depreciate over three months.
And two of the complainants felt that the graph indicated that the rate of depreciation in the value of the average car would accelerate over time, which they understood was not the case, and challenged whether this was misleading and could be substantiated.
We Buy Any Car's response
But We Buy Any Car said it had complied with all relevant advertising code provisions.
It said it sent thousands of emails similar to this ad each month.
The messages were personalised with the customer’s make and model of vehicle, where known, and sent to individuals who had indicated that they were content to receive marketing communications from We Buy Any Car. We Buy Any Car said that it was likely to use this approach repeatedly in future.
It stated it is a “universally accepted principle” that car values generally depreciate over time, though there may be individual cases and circumstances where this is not the case. It said it held a large amount of knowledge, data and experience to support this general proposition, but believed that this was too voluminous to provide and it was not necessary or appropriate to do so in the context of the complaint.
We Buy Any Car stated the complaint referred to an image which was a graph that was intended as a visual message to reinforce the simple point that cars may go down in value over time.
It emphasised that the illustration did not include a scale or any monetary values and therefore could not strictly be termed a “graph”.
It believed that it was clear that the image did not illustrate a relationship between specific data values and was not meant to represent a precise scientific analysis of car value depreciation.
In addition, it had included qualifications at the end of the email stating “pictures are for illustration purposes only” and explaining that there can be exceptions to the general trend and that they were not forecasting any specific decline in car values.
In its view, this fully complied with the code and did not require any further elaboration.
As a result, they did not consider that the communication could have been misleading.
We Buy Any Car added that the relationship between car values and time was not linear, but more complex, though they did not think that this was material to the investigation given that the graphic did not represent a relationship between concrete data values. It maintained that no additional substantiation was needed. However, it stated that even if it was to accept that consumers would look at the graph while ignoring the rest of the email and would interpret it as showing a relationship between data values, it believed that the alleged claim was, in fact, accurate. In support of this, We Buy Any Car said that advice on the Money Matters' website stated that cars generally depreciate faster as the dates for the release of new number plates approach.
The ASA acknowledged that as the illustration did not show a relationship between two sets of numerical values, it did not technically fit the scientific or mathematical definition of a graph.
Nevertheless, the chart featured two axes labelled with variables and a line representing a relationship between them, which it considered that the average consumer would identify as a graph.
“By presenting the information in the way that it did, we considered that We Buy Any Car created the impression that the line represented a relationship between variables and would be regarded by consumers as indicating that car values depreciated at a rapid and accelerating rate.
“We acknowledged that an asterisk in front of the text above the image directed consumers to the small print. However, we considered that the relatively small size of the text and its position at the bottom of a lengthy email message meant that it was likely to be overlooked by the majority of recipients.
“We understood that the central aim of the ad was to communicate that, with the release of new number plates in several weeks’ time, as well as other factors, recipients’ vehicles were likely to decrease in value in the near future.
“However, the advice on the Money Matters website referred to by the advertiser specifically stated that if consumers took advantage of discounts on older models in the lead-up to the plate change, then those cars would depreciate at a faster rate.
“We did not consider this to be sufficient evidence that, on average, all cars would depreciate rapidly, moving from a ‘high’ to ‘low’ value over a three-month period and at an accelerating rate, the general trend suggested by the curve of the line in the graphic. We also noted that the chart specifically portrayed a pattern of depreciation over a period of three months, which did not correspond with the shorter timeframe referred to in the text.
“We recognised that the depreciation of an individual vehicle was affected by a variety of factors, not least time-specific events such as the release of new number plates, that might cause sudden drops at certain times of the year, and considered that, as such, it would be very difficult to accurately represent a simple trend of depreciation for the ‘average’ car.
“We considered that to present a curve that suggested such a trend in the context of claims about the effects of various factors, some of them short term, was likely to mislead readers.
“Therefore, we concluded that the implied claim that car values depreciated rapidly at an increasing rate had not been substantiated and was misleading.”
The ASA has told We Buy Any Car not to use the ad again and “not to use visual representations in advertising in future that are likely to mislead consumers”.