Don't make a meal of your special offers

Out-Law Analysis | 10 Jun 2010 | 2:24 pm | 4 min. read

OPINION: Sometimes the simplest special offers are the best, but any business looking for new customers by enticing them with a great deal had better make sure they get the details right. Just ask the Hastings Eating & Drinking House.

The fallout from that restaurant's bungled advert reached watchdog the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), whose ruling reads like a 'don’t do' list for anyone considering marketing through a special offer.

When satisfied diners handed over vouchers that had appeared in local paper the Lytham St Anne's Express they found that they couldn't redeem them as described and that they would be paying for food they had thought was free. Worse, they discovered that no two parties in the debacle could give them the same story about what the actual offer was.

A coupon in the Express promised a "complimentary main course for every reader". As is usually the case with restaurant offers, reasonable conditions applied to keep uptake away from busy periods. It applied on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays only, up to a defined closing date, and only on the a la carte menu when two courses or more were ordered per person.

Or so the coupon (pictured) stated. The restaurant claimed that this wasn't their offer at all. It said that only one free main course was available per couple – the cheaper of the two would be free – and that a starter had to be ordered by each person making the claim. A dessert did not count as a course because desserts were not listed on the a la carte menu, diners were told.

The ad: 'complimentary main course for every reader'

One man was part of a party of six who all had a main course and a dessert, while two of them had starters. Expecting six free main courses, he was told he could only use two vouchers. Understandably, he complained, and the ASA found that the ad was misleading.

Just how it came to be misleading is the more interesting part of this story, though, for anyone planning a special offer.

The Express is owned by local newspaper publisher Johnston Press. It told the ASA that it worked with the Hastings Eating & Drinking House's PR company to produce the offer. It said that it showed the PR firm a proof of the ad, and changes were made three times before final copy approval was given.

The PR company gave a completely different story. It said it had received one proof of the ad and had made changes, but had been unable to view a second proof because of email problems. It was forced to approve the ad without seeing it because of a looming deadline. It said that the phrase "for every reader" was the newspaper's and was never used by it or the restaurant.

The PR company did admit to the ASA that it had not made clear in copy given to the Express that desserts did not count as a 'course' under the offer's terms. The ASA was unforgiving on this point.

"We considered readers would infer from the ad that every voucher holder was entitled to a complimentary main course when they ordered two courses," said its ruling. "Because there was no indication in the ad that desserts were not part of the la carte menu, we considered readers would expect that the two courses could either be a starter and a main course or a dessert and a main course."

We have no way of knowing whose account is the more accurate and what mistakes were made by whom, but there are some clear lessons.

If you are creating a special offer that you want to promote through the media then there are some basic competing interests to juggle. As a business you will want to limit the offer's cost to you, and this is usually done by imposing conditions limiting its use.

The trouble is, conditions undermine the appeal of the offer. Consumers will respond best to big, simple, easy-to-understand and easy-to-use offers with a minimum of qualifying small print.

So will newspapers and other media outlets. They see such offers as a service to their readers – if they are giving over valuable space in their papers they will want uptake to be as high as possible.

It is understandable, then, that a newspaper might be keen for phrases such as 'for every reader' to appear, since that makes the offer appear generous. It is also understandable that a proprietor will baulk at such a phrase, since he will have to honour the deal for every reader.

This is all resolvable. Many businesses make simple, clearly-communicated offers that drive custom through their doors, raise their profile and create long-term relationships with new buyers.

But such a difficult situation can only be navigated with great communication. There were three parties here – the restaurant, the PR intermediary and the newspaper. The fact that two completely different stories have emerged about what actually happened shows that communication broke down.

The result of this breakdown is sad: a restaurant that tried to reach out to new customers alienated them instead, making them feel short-changed and probably embarrassed. That party of six is unlikely to rush back to the Hastings Eating & Drinking House.

Those diners will buy the Express again. They probably don't even know the name of the PR company. But they will forever remember the restaurant, and not in the way the business wanted.

This is the lesson of Hastings: if you make an offer try to make it simple, and make sure that the offer you make is the one that appears, because it is your reputation alone that is on the line.

By Clare Francis, a Senior Associate with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, who specialises in advertising and promotions. The views expressed are Clare's and do not necessarily represent the views of Pinsent Masons.