Virgin Atlantic’s co-ordinated efforts in the UK and the US to
prevent British Airways billing itself as ’the world’s favourite
airline’ threaten to put advertising’s self-regulatory system in a
The Advertising Standards Authority has consistently bought BA’s
argument that its continued use of the line is justified by the fact
that it flies more international passengers than any other carrier.
Virgin, with some justification, dismisses this as mere semantics. Its
contention is not only that BA does not carry the greatest number of
passengers, but that the slogan is not borne out by BA’s performance in
various independent passenger surveys.
In continuing to back BA, the ASA is on dubious ground and risks setting
unintentional precedents while creating a situation that will slip out
of its control.
By ruling as it has, the ASA makes a worrying correlation between usage
and being the favourite. Does this mean that any advertiser claiming to
sell more widgets than anybody else in Britain can boast of being the
country’s favourite widget maker?
In the heavily regulated and restricted world of the international
airline business, judgments about which carrier is the favourite will
always be highly subjective. How many BA passengers use the airline
simply because it offers the right flight at the right time?
What’s clear is that, should Virgin so choose, it could cause the
self-regulatory system much discomfort. It could decide to challenge the
system via a judicial review by claiming that the ASA’s ruling is
unreasonable. With the courts taking an increasingly tough line over
advertising ’puffery’, Virgin may feel that the odds are in its favour.
Nor is there anything to stop it making a direct approach to the
director-general of fair trading with a call to intervene.
Any one of these outcomes could rebound badly on self-regulation. And if
airlines successfully put pressure on their national governments to get
BA’s slogan outlawed, the system is going to look very silly indeed.