The Aviva-owned private health insurer ran a press, poster and direct mail campaign that highlighted long delays for NHS operations at the Royal Cornwall and Royal Shrewsbury hospital trusts and promoted its service.
One press ad read "Royal Cornwall Hospital. Queues likely. Avoid the wait. Call 0800 42 42 42" with smaller print below giving more details about its service.
Other press ads and a direct mail piece included waiting times figures such as 125 days for a hernia operation at Royal Cornwall Hospital NHS Trust.
Complaints were made by the Royal Cornwall Hospital NHS Trust, as well as MP Matthew Taylor and members of the public. The complaints were that the waiting times quoted in the ads were "exaggerated and inaccurate", that the ads could alarm readers and that they denigrated the hospitals.
The Advertising Standards Authority upheld every complaint and asked Norwich Union Healthcare not to use the ads again.
The waiting times were factually correct and the most commercially up-to-date available, based on waiting list figures for 2003 and in one case 2002. However, the ASA objected because the source of the data had not been stated clearly enough in some of the ads, leaving readers to infer that the figures were more up-to-date than they actually were.
It added that there was no evidence that extraordinary delays were occurring at the time of the campaign and therefore the ads exaggerated the extent to which access to the two trusts was restricted and could distress readers.
In addition, it ruled that most of the press ads denigrated the named hospitals, and that the creative approach misleadingly suggested the ads were public information and not commercial communications.
Norwich Union Healthcare apologised for any offence caused and said it had no plans to use similar creative in the future. It issued a statement, in which it said:
"We acknowledge and welcome the fact that many NHS Trust waiting lists have reduced over recent months, due to the hard work and dedication of their staff. This is a point which is made in numerous places within the campaign.
"However, our customers tell us that having to wait for treatment on the NHS is still of concern to them. We are simply putting the facts to people and offering a solution to the problem should they be interested."
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