You can't count on UCount ads, watchdog tells Standard Bank customers

Dave Chambers Cape Town bureau chief
'Up to R5 back' is a misleading claim by Standard Bank, says advertising watchdog.
'Up to R5 back' is a misleading claim by Standard Bank, says advertising watchdog.
Image: Advertising Regulatory Board

One of SA's big five banks has been censured for practising “deception” in advertising for its rewards programme.

Standard Bank's UCount scheme offers “up to R5 back” per litre of fuel bought at a Caltex filling station.

After a ruling on Friday by the advertising watchdog, it has been ordered to withdraw the claim because it applies to only 1% of UCount customers.

The next best reward under the tiered UCount programme gives customers only R1.25 per litre, said the Advertising Regulatory Board.

This is the “type of deception” the advertising code of conduct sought to avoid when it said such claims were unacceptable when they apply to an “insignificant proportion” of customers, it said.

Rajesh Narotam complained to the regulator that Standard Bank's claim was misleading because UCount deliberately excluded most customers from the R5 saving.

To reach the top tier of the programme, members had to spend R20,000 a month on their credit card in addition to accumulating sufficient reward points, he said.

“This is a significant barrier to entry, making it unattainable for most customers,” said Narotam.

Attorneys Bouwers Inc, on behalf of Standard Bank, said UCount terms were easily available, and the asterisk attached to advertising about the fuel offer made clear that conditions applied.

“The objection appears to relate more to the inclusion/exclusion criteria applicable to each tier than the actual advertising,” said the lawyers.

“Members on higher tiers receive higher reward points, but are required to spend more in order to earn these higher rewards.

“It is therefore logical that there would be substantially more tier-1 customers than tier-5 customers, as the qualification criteria for tier 1 are substantially lower than that of the subsequent tiers.

“Given that the qualification criteria for tier 5 are so high, only about 1% of its customers ever reach this tier. However, this still translates into thousands of Standard Bank UCount Rewards customers. This is not an insignificant number.”

The watchdog said rewards programmes are typically complicated, with top tiers hard to reach. “Reasonable consumers are likely to appreciate this fact,” it said.

“The problem lies in the fact that while the advertising is aimed at all UCount customers, only a small minority ... would reach tier 5 in order to qualify for the maximum R5 per litre reward.

“The issue is that the advertising offers an 'up to R5' benefit to ALL UCount customers, and only 1% of that target market qualify.

“The hypothetical reasonable person, on seeing the advertising, will think one of two things: I should join UCount to get R5 back per litre on my fuel; or I am on UCount, so I should buy my fuel at Caltex to get R5 back.

“However, only 1% of these consumers would actually receive the benefit. In addition, the discrepancy between the only advertised reward and the lower-tiered rewards is material and significant.

“This discrepancy is likely to create a misleading expectation with reasonable consumers, who are only exposed to a promise of a potential significant saving.”

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