Thursday, October 4, 2018

FanFair hits out as advertising regulator says Viagogo ads are all good | UNLIMITED | CMU


Anti-touting group the FanFair Alliance yesterday hit out at the news that the Advertising Standards Authority has dismissed a complaint over the way Viagogo advertises tickets on Google search. The ad industry regulator ruled that a specific Viagogo ad for Rolling Stones tickets would not have misled fans, as three complainants – including FanFair – had argued.

The use of Google advertising by secondary ticketing sites, and especially Viagogo, to buy their way to the top of search results for in-demand concerts and tours has been a key talking point for those who want stricter regulation of the ticket resale market.

Those campaigners argue that many consumers do not understand the difference between primary and secondary ticketing platforms and are inclined to assume that whoever comes top on Google must be an official seller. Therefore they may buy from a tout on a site like Viagogo without realising that those tickets will likely be more expensive, that the booking fee will be higher, and that their tickets could even be cancelled by the promoter.

The British ad industry itself has expressed concerns about the way the secondary ticketing market promotes its tickets. The Advertising Standards Authority previously criticised all resale sites over the way they displayed prices, with booking fees and VAT often hidden at first instance.

Most sites amended the way prices were listed in response to the ASA’s criticism, although Viagogo initially resisted, with the ad industry regulator threatening sanctions against the firm as a result. Then last month the ASA said that it was now happy that Viagogo had dealt with its concerns over pricing, meaning that all active sanctions were off the agenda.

The ASA had also criticised Viagogo in particular over its use of terms like “official site” and “100% guaranteed”, because sellers on the platform are completely “unofficial” and tickets bought from touts may in fact be cancelled by the promoter. Technically the “guarantee” refers to Viagogo’s commitment to refund monies if tickets do not get a consumer entry into a show, but most people agree the use of the phrase is entirely misleading.

In response to that ASA criticism – and also new rules introduced by Google relating to secondary ticketing sites advertising on its search engine – Viagogo also amended some of the phrasing it uses around its advertising.

Though, interestingly, while paid for Google listings from Viagogo no longer use the term “100% guaranteed”, some of those that appear organically on the search engine still do. And, of course, the company is still accused of ignoring other elements of UK consumer rights law, leading to legal action by the Competition & Markets Authority.

The ASA’s ruling earlier this week was separate to its past proclamations on how resale sites display pricing information and such like. It related to a specific complaint about the way Viagogo promoted tickets to Rolling Stones shows on Google. Complainants argued that the text used in the paid-for search engine listing didn’t make it clear that Viagogo was a resale platform and not an official seller of tickets to the Rolling Stones concerts.

In its defence, Viagogo argued that it is a well known secondary ticketing site, that it didn’t claim to be a primary ticket seller in the ad, that consumers know there are various options when buying tickets to events, and that Google advertising doesn’t allow for very many words to explain the ins and outs of the ticketing market. It also drew a parallel with the way the travel industry works and how travel agents advertise on Google.

According to the ASA’s ruling yesterday: “Viagogo provided the analogy of searching for flights online, where consumers were often presented with results for websites where you can book directly with the relevant airline, third party agents or comparison websites. In such cases, there was no requirement to state in the initial ad what type of website the link would send you to”.

While that travel industry analogy seems to have impressed the ASA, it’s worth noting that when a third party travel website sells a plane ticket, it isn’t doing so in violation of the airline’s terms and conditions. Which is very often the case when tickets are resold on Viagogo. Therefore that’s something of a false equivalency.

Confirming it was not upholding the complaint in relation to the Rolling Stones listing, the ASA said that it didn’t think “consumers would assume that the ad was for a primary ticketing website” or that Viagogo’s ad was misleading by failing to explicitly state it wasn’t a primary seller. Also reckoning that there was no specific obligation for Viagogo to explicitly state that it was an unofficial secondary seller, the ASA said: “We therefore concluded that the ad was unlikely to mislead consumers”.

Needless to say, the FanFair Alliance was very critical of yesterday’s announcement, which it says reverses a draft decision it was sent by the regulator back in June. It has now submitted an appeal to the ASA’s ‘independent reviewer’, urging it to overturn the ruling.

The anti-touting campaign said: “FanFair research has repeatedly highlighted the detrimental impact of Viagogo’s marketing practices – with the site paying to dominate Google search, but without making a clear disclosure it is a ‘resale’ site. It is estimated that over 40% of Viagogo’s traffic comes directly from paid search”.

It then referenced its own past research that suggests many consumers are still confused about the difference between primary and secondary sites, as well as revealing the results of a new survey of 100 members of the Victim Of Viagogo Facebook Group. Of those people, 91% found Viagogo via a Google search, 92% didn’t realise they were clicking on a paid-for listing, 90% didn’t know Viagogo was a resale site rather than a primary ticket agent, and 95% felt Viagogo’s Google adverts should make its status as a resale site clear.

Also citing widespread criticism of Viagogo’s marketing practices from the music community, consumer rights groups, government agencies in multiple countries, and MPs and ministers in the UK, FanFair Campaign Manager Adam Webb stated: “We are struggling to make sense of this decision. It defies all evidence and favours a controversial and potentially law-breaking Swiss website over the interests of British consumers”.

He went on: “An ASA stamp of approval flies in the face of everything we know about Viagogo, and implies that the site and it’s marketing practices meet the regulator’s standard of being ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’. We have already sent an appeal to the ASA’s independent reviewer urging that this ruling is overturned”.

One of the MPs who has been most vocal on ticket touting over the years, Sharon Hodgson MP, joined in with the criticism, telling reporters: “Throughout my many years of campaigning against the rogue secondary ticket market, I have heard time and time again of fans being misled and ripped off by Viagogo. It is time for serious action to be taken against them, but this statement from ASA is one step backwards at a time when we should be moving forwards with stronger enforcement for the sake of fans across the country”.

FanFair and the All Party Parliamentary Group On Ticket Abuse – chaired by Hodgson – have already called on Google itself to stop taking Viagogo advertising, especially in light of the CMA legal action against the resale platform. That call was also backed by the Society Of Ticket Agents And Retailers, which yesterday also criticised the ASA ruling.

Its CEO Jonathan Brown said: “FanFair’s research underpins widespread criticism that Viagogo’s ability to buy its way to the top of searches for tickets can lead to consumer confusion and potential harm. It is disappointing that the ASA has ignored the experiences of ticket buyers, as well as the many concerns raised by regulators, politicians and the industry over Viagogo’s practices. STAR supports FanFair’s appeal against this adjudication in the hope that it leads to a better resolution that actually works to protect consumers”.

For its part Viagogo – which has started responding to things like this again in the last couple of months – said in a statement yesterday: “We have been working closely with the ASA and are pleased to have reached resolution. We remain committed to providing clear information to our customers. All tickets on Viagogo are genuine and backed by our guarantee”.


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