National Party's 'mischievous' bar graph cleared by advertising watchdog

A National Party advert which contained a graph that exaggerated the difference between the cost of petrol under Labour and National was "mischievous" and had potential to "cause confusion", but wasn't misleading, the advertising watchdog has ruled.

But at least two of the complainants are planning to appeal the Advertising Standards Authority's (ASA) decision, one of them saying if it was car manufacturer instead of a political party making the comparison, the ruling would have gone the other way.

The ad was posted on National's social media channels in early December. It claimed under National, petrol was $1.91 a litre, with tax making up 87c of that; but under Labour it's $2.23, with tax of $1.12.

The figures were shown inside bar graphs, which showed Labour's wider than National's, and 61 percent taller - despite the difference in prices being only 16 percent. The tax section of each graph was also exaggerated in Labour's column, statisticians noted

National's figure of $1.91 with 87c was also the average taken over their nine years in power, disregarding inflation, minimising the impact of tax hikes it applied over its nine-year term, and ignoring temporary price fluctuations - such as in 2012, when they were higher than they are now. In contrast, Labour's figure was from a single day - November 29, 2019. 

"This ad is deliberately constructed to be misleading and it presents data in a dishonest way," said complainant Dylan Reeve. 

"The intention, repeatedly, is to mislead, confuse and deceive consumers," said another.

In its defence, the National Party said the "the spirit of the [advertising] code is more important than any minor technical breaches".

"People have a right to express their views and this right should not be unduly or unreasonably restricted by rules," National argued.

"The bars displayed on the graphics are simply a visual tool to show that there are two separate figures and one is more than the other. It is not misleading as the figures are displayed prominently on the graphic... Some people who view the information may have chosen not to read how it is calculated, even given the source and methodology. That is their prerogative, but it still doesn't make the information incorrect as sourced and noted clearly on the advert."

The ASA board was convinced, the majority ruling "the data displayed was correct which saved the hyperbolic graphic from being misleading, given the political medium used and the principles of advocacy advertising".

It admitted using a "liberal interpretation" of the rules, because " in a free and democratic society, differences of political opinion should be openly debated without undue hindrance or interference from authorities such as the complaints board, and in no way should political parties, politicians, lobby groups or advocates be unnecessarily fettered by a technical or unduly strict interpretation of the rules and regulations".

A minority on the board did note some people would just look at the bar graph and ignore the numbers, and that comparing the average price over National's nine years to Labour's on a single day "did not present like-for-like data and this could also cause confusion". 

"The majority of the Complaints Board said the execution of the infographic was mischievous but did not reach the threshold to mislead within an advocacy environment."

Reeve said on his Twitter account he'd likely be appealing the decision.

"Imagine if Toyota made an ad where they compared the average RRP of a Toyota Corolla from 1980 to 2020, to the current sticker price of a Mazda or something," he wrote. "There's no way that the ASA would find that to be anything other than misleading."

The ASA noted a previous complaint about a misleading bar graph used in an advertisement by the National Bank was indeed upheld, saying there was "no room for hyperbole within financial advertising".

"I was one of the complainants," Jason Langworthy wrote on Twitter. "Will be lodging my appeal this weekend."

Reeve said it seemed National has "been dancing around those technicalities for a while. Part of me wonders if they are purposefully probing the limits and establishing precedent."