ASA Ruling on Misleading URL

September 18, 2012

In ASA Adjudication on Esta Visa Ltd, the ASA was concerned with a sponsored search advert, which had been seen by a complainant in July 2012. The advert stated “EHIC Apply Now – EHIC Replaces the E111 Card. Get Your Official EHIC Now!”. The complainant challenged whether the advert was misleading because he believed the URL “” implied a link with the NHS.

In response, Esta Visa Ltd t/a felt the web site was clear in terms of the service offered and said it was clearly marked that they charged for a service. They added that consumers were also quite clearly advised that the cards were free and could be obtained for free, and they also provided a link for consumers to do so. They did not consider that the web domain was misleading, as people could click on the link, but did not have to buy the advertiser’s services. They said they also offered free advice and provided free information to consumers should they choose to e-mail them. They said the web site clearly set out that the site was not affiliated to the NHS and stated “Please read the EHIC Facts section below. This web site is not connected to or affiliated with the NHS or any government department”.

The complaint was upheld. The ASA noted that the web site included text at the end of a paragraph on the home page, which stated “This web site is not connected to or affiliated with the NHS or any government department”. However, it considered that the use of the term “www.nhs-services” in the URL implied the advertiser was the NHS, which consumers would know to be the official provider of health services in the UK. Because that was not the case, the ASA concluded that the advert was misleading. The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1, 3.3 (Misleading advertising), 3.7 (Substantiation) and 3.50 (Endorsements and testimonials).

The action required by the ASA was that ‘The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told Esta Visa to ensure they did not imply they were linked to the NHS’.

Laurence Eastham comments:

This case is hardly ground-breaking but it is a worthwhile reminder of the dangers of picking urls that give undue prominence to a misleading aspect of the subject matter covered on a web page.

That those dangers are generally far outweighed by the commercial advantages is widely acknowledged by the many hundreds of sites outwith the ASA’s jurisdiction which routinely design urls which are as misleading as possible. What might also be gleaned from this case, and arguably makes it most interesting, is that even those within the ASA’s jurisdiction might just as well carry on misleading. At least that might well be Esta Visa’s view since they were told in December 2011 by the ASA, in a case arising from a very similar complaint, that the use of ‘nhs’ in their url was misleading. The ASA action? It was ‘The ads must not appear again in their current form. We told Esta Visa to ensure they did not mislead consumers regarding the commercial nature of their website or the costs associated with applying for an EHIC card with them.’

Surely this latest case was crying out for sanctions, if only to encourage the others.