Dr. Alexandros Antoniou, Lecturer in Media Law, University of Essex
On 11 September 2019, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the UK’s advertising regulator, found that claims on the website of an essay writing service lacked adequate substantiation and breached the Authority’s rules on misleading advertising.
What was the ad about?
The ASA’s remit includes, since 2011, claims made by companies on their own websites and in social media spaces under their control. The contested advertisement appeared on the website http://www.proacademichelp.co.uk, which included on its home page the following text:
EXCELLENCE BEGINS HERE… There [sic] no better place than Proacademichelp.co.uk to get the best academic help. Professionals [sic] Assistance by highly qualified experts… FIRST ORDER DONE FOR FREE*
Services listed on the website included assignments and dissertations for several subjects including law, engineering and marketing. Further text read:
Quality Essays We don’t offer plagiarized or duplicate essay content. Our content is 100% original. Quality is what comes first for us.
Under the page titled ‘Essays’, additional text included the following statements:
Best Essays by Oxford and Cambridge Experts… We provide accurate and possibly best essays that are of highest standards. Our expert essayists make sure that they deliver you a first-rate quality of essay…
A disclaimer available on the website read in smaller text:
Proacademichelp.co.uk is offering services pertaining to editing, proofreading, formatting and consultation through its website while ensuring to comply with the laws and ethical norms of the industry. We do NOT [emphasis in the original] own any work given to us by clients. We do not offer any sort of writing services.
What were the regulatory issues raised?
One complainant challenged whether the statement ‘FIRST ORDER DONE FOR FREE*’ could be substantiated. Additionally, the ASA felt there were reasons for further investigation and queried whether the claim ‘best essays by Oxford and Cambridge experts’ could also be adequately substantiated and whether the website misleadingly implied that students could submit an essay they had bought as their own.
What was the ASA’s decision?
First of all, advertisers are required under the ASA’s Non-Broadcast Advertising Code (CAP Code) to address the regulator’s enquiries without delay. In an apparent disregard for the Code, Proacademichelp.co.uk provided no response. This resulted in a finding of breach of Rule 1.7 of the CAP Code (unreasonable delay).
Second, the ASA upheld the single complaint against the ad because it found no evidence that the claim ‘first order done for free*’ was a genuine offer. The statement on the website did not include any information about how to obtain the ‘free’ order, nor did it identify any further limitations or qualifications attached to it. As such, it failed to clarify the extent of the commitment the consumer must make to benefit from a free offer in breach of Rule 3.23 of the CAP Code.
Third, the ASA challenged the statement ‘Best Essays by Oxford and Cambridge Experts’. This was sensibly taken to imply that students who selected this essay writing service would receive high-quality essays from individuals who had attended prestigious Oxbridge institutions. Although this claim was likely to be regarded by consumers as objective, no evidence was provided whatsoever by Proacademichelp.co.uk to substantiate it. As a result, the ASA found that it violated its general principle under Rule 3.1 of the CAP Code, which requires advertisers to avoid including materially misleading statements in their commercial messages.
Last but not least, the regulator took issue with Proacademichelp.co.uk’s claims that the essays would be plagiarism-free. It considered that students likely to read them would understand that they could purchase and submit essays as their own without any consequences. The website did not, however, make clear that this was not the case and as such, it was found to have mislead consumers by omitting material information in breach of Rule 3.3 of the Code. The ASA also noted that the disclaimer provided was ‘insufficient’ to neutralise the unsubstantiated claims about non-plagiarised professionally written essays. The regulator concluded:
We told [Proacademichelp.co.uk] not to use the claim ‘best essays by Oxford and Cambridge experts’ and not to imply that students could submit an essay that they bought as their own without risks.
This is not the first time the ASA has grappled with claims made by essay writing companies. In 2013, the Authority ruled that Oxbridgeessays.com had breached its CAP code by offering a money-back guarantee that customers would receive ‘at least the grade they ordered’. Commissioning custom essays is a rapidly growing problem, which the higher education sector and legislation has been slow to address. Also known as ‘contract cheating’, this practice compromises the fairness of the assessment process and presents a real threat to academic integrity. A study conducted by Swansea University found that one in seven students globally is believed to have paid for someone to produce their assignment, ‘potentially representing 31 million students around the world’.
Offering a product which (the presence of disclaimers notwithstanding) can be used for the purposes of cheating in a programme of study is not compliant with the ASA’s core principle, which requires marketing communications to be ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful.’ The UK Advertising Code will not, however, apply to non-UK based websites offering custom essay writing services. This approach may have limited impact considering that many of these websites are based overseas (and are thus beyond the ASA’s jurisdiction). Nevertheless, the ASA’s ruling is a useful reminder that providers’ unsupported claims that their essays are ‘100% original’ or ‘100% plagiarism free’ are misleading and far from honest. Although such an advertised essay may not include any plagiarised text per se, submitting it and representing it as the student’s own work can amount to an act of plagiarism, which is a serious academic offence.