ASA Ruling on Church of Scientology International
Church of Scientology International
6331 Hollywood Boulevard
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2 March 2016
Number of complaints:
Golden Era Productions
Summary of Council decision:
Three issues were investigated, of which one was Upheld and two were Not upheld.
A TV ad for the Church of Scientology featured on-screen text which stated, "The Church of Scientology works with volunteers from many faiths to help people ... including teaching 19 million the facts about illicit drugs ...". That was accompanied by an image of a row of schoolchildren each reading a leaflet. The on-screen text then stated, "... making tens of millions aware of their human rights ..." and that was accompanied by an image of a boy and girl reading a leaflet. Further on-screen text stated, "… giving aid to 24 million in times of need" and was accompanied by images of two Scientology volunteers carrying a person on a stretcher and another Scientology volunteer with a stethoscope around her neck, who was holding a baby. An end-frame featured text stating, "Our help is yours. Scientology.org".
One viewer challenged whether the following claims were misleading and could be substantiated.
1. "teaching 19 million the facts about illicit drugs";
2. "making tens of millions aware of their human rights"; and
3. "giving aid to 24 million in times of need".
1. The Church of Scientology International explained that the figure of 19 million came from the 17,883,930 people recorded as having attended drug education lectures (mainly in schools and colleges) provided by their network of drug rehabilitation and education charities, known as Narconon, between 1984 and 2014. These lectures involved giving factual information about what drugs were and their physical and mental effects, as well as other social issues related to drug abuse. The figure of 19 million also included the 1,931,092 attendees of their 'Truth about Drugs' lectures and events. They said the figure did not include the millions of 'Truth about Drugs' booklets that their volunteers had distributed in many countries around the world.
Clearcast provided a copy of the 'Truth about Drugs' leaflet and some spreadsheets containing the figures referred to above.
2. The Church of Scientology said the figure referred to the numbers of people who had seen the short films they had produced on each of the 30 points of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which had been shown on TV channels around the world. They believed that figure was a low estimate and was based on the information provided by the TV channels, which showed an audience for the short films totalling more than 133 million viewers. Furthermore, their volunteers had distributed millions of education booklets on human rights and had partnered with thousands of schools in the delivery of a human rights educational programme based on that material. In addition, they had websites which had the purpose of educating people on their human rights and these had been visited by millions of internet users. They provided two graphs showing the number of unique users who visited their websites www.humanrights.com and www.youthforhumanrights.org, over the years from 2009 and 2007 respectively.
Clearcast said they understood the figure was based on two elements. First, the number of unique user visits to the Church's 'Youth for Human Rights' and 'United for Human Rights' websites (which were 5,428,573 and 6,704,258 respectively). Second, estimated viewing figures for the Church's 'Youth for Human Rights' Public Service Announcements (PSAs) and their 'Story of Human Rights' documentary. Clearcast submitted the viewing figures it had been provided with.
Clearcast had been told by the advertisers that the viewing figures had been reported by the various TV stations around the world over the last six years or so. They understood that the viewing figures obtained by the Church were either published or estimated figures for the days and times the features were broadcast and the estimated figures had been obtained directly from the TV channels concerned. To avoid counting viewers more than once, Clearcast understood that the Church of Scientology had adopted a policy of only counting 10% of the viewership, where the TV station reported that over two million people had seen the feature, and that had been an arbitrary decision. They understood that the Church had considered that a reasonable means of arriving at a consistent and realistic figure. Clearcast also considered that the approach was acceptable. They provided a sample of post logs from various TV stations showing the times and dates the PSAs and documentary had been aired.
3. The Church of Scientology explained that the figure was based on the 24,202,952 individuals recorded as having been helped by Scientology volunteer ministers between 1998 (when they started keeping records of that) and 2014. Volunteer ministers were trained to provide whatever practical assistance a person in need required and all of the assistance provided was in the form of one-on-one help to individuals. Frequently at disaster sites, the aid provided by volunteers was medical assistance, food, water and shelter. Volunteers provided any other aid that might be required and included, for example, rescuing people buried under rubble (there were specialist teams who did that), reconnecting survivors with their loved ones, helping survivors move to a place of safety or counselling them through their trauma and grief.
They said that it was not possible to convey all of the varied forms of aid provided by their volunteers in a short TV ad. They did not believe it was misleading to provide typical examples of Scientology volunteer aid work in that context. They said the two images shown in the ad were representative of the work carried out by volunteers and explained that all volunteers were specifically trained to ensure that any first aid that was needed was provided before anything else was done to help an individual. This was emphasised in the volunteer training manual which stated "First aid always comes first". They said the initial focus at any disaster site was to get Scientology volunteers who were doctors, nurses and those trained in emergency aid, as well as rescue specialists, to the site. They provided two letters from Scientology volunteers describing what typically happened at a disaster site. They said the images in the ad were genuine pictures of Scientology volunteers at work and they were typical of the assistance given by volunteers at every disaster site.
In relation to how the numbers were calculated, the Church said they had a policy of keeping statistics on almost everything they did. In this case, Volunteer Ministers in Charge at a disaster site were required to record the number of individuals who had been helped by their volunteers. That information was collated and, from that, an annual figure was produced. They provided a sample report from a Volunteer Minister in Charge at a recent disaster zone. They said that whilst they recognised there were obvious difficulties in obtaining precise figures on people given aid, they believed they went to some lengths to try to be precise.
In addition, they explained that their volunteers had also trained tens of thousands of others in help techniques. They pointed out that the figure did not include the millions more who had received aid as a result of that training, as there was no way of recording that. They, therefore, believed the figure of 24 million was conservative and was unlikely to materially mislead viewers.
Clearcast said they were provided with substantiation for each year since 1998, showing that a total of 24,202,952 people were helped by the Church's volunteer ministers. They understood that the volunteer minister programme was a broad initiative of the Church of Scientology which had the purpose of bringing effective physical and spiritual assistance to anyone, anywhere. Since its inception, hundreds of thousands had been trained in a wide range of skills that used Scientology fundamental principles to alleviate physical, mental or spiritual suffering. Clearcast understood that volunteer ministers extended their help to remote places through their 'Goodwill Tours' and 'Extreme Pioneer Tours', and that there was a volunteer minister disaster response team in place, ready to be mobilised in times of natural or man-made disasters. In those situations, members of the team worked with community leaders, government officials, relief organisations and other volunteer groups to provide physical support and meaningful support through their organisation, skill and experience. Clearcast provided a list of disaster sites that the Church's volunteer ministers had been present at.
The ASA noted that the dates on which the figures were based had not been made clear in the ad. However, we considered that viewers were likely to interpret the claims to mean the number of people who had been affected in the ways described during the history of the Church of Scientology and we did not consider the absence of that qualification in itself rendered the claims misleading in those circumstances.
1. Not upheld
We considered that viewers were likely to interpret the claim to mean that during the history of the Church, its members had educated 14 million people about the facts of illicit drugs, and that the image, which depicted a row of schoolchildren reading leaflets, implied that was done at least in part by way of lectures and educational leaflets. We noted that the figure was based on the number of individuals who had attended anti-drug lectures run by the Church of Scientology around the world between the years 1984 and 2014. We also noted that the figure of 19 million did not include those individuals who had received 'The truth about drugs' leaflet distributed by the Church's volunteer ministers over the years. We considered that the evidence provided was adequate to substantiate the claim and concluded that it was not misleading.
On that point, we investigated the ad under BCAP Code rules 3.1 (Misleading advertising) and 3.9 (Substantiation), but did not find it in breach.
2. Not Upheld
We considered that viewers were likely to interpret the claim to mean that since its inception the Church had informed tens of millions of people (i.e. at least 20 million) about their human rights, and that the image shown, of a boy and a girl reading a leaflet, was likely to be understood to be an example of that. We understood from the graphs provided that the number of unique user hits on the Church's websites about human rights over the years totalled over ten million. We understood that the viewing figures for the public service announcements (PSAs) and documentary totalled 133 million and we noted from the substantiation that the features had been broadcast by over 900 TV stations around the world over approximately the past six years. We considered the content of the PSAs, the documentary and the websites did inform viewers about human rights.
We understood that the Church had imposed a policy of only counting 10% of viewers where a station reported that over two million viewers had seen the PSAs or documentary, and that they had done so with the aim of compensating for viewers who may have seen the ad more than once. We acknowledged that, whilst that was an arbitrary decision, it had the purpose of reaching a more conservative figure. We also noted that some of the viewing figures were estimates obtained from the TV stations.
We noted that the total figure for the unique user visits to the Church's human rights websites together with the viewing figures for the PSAs and documentary was approximately 143 million, whereas the claim stated that "tens of millions" had been made aware of their human rights. We considered that the figures provided far exceeded the figures referred to in the claim and considered that even if there were some shortcomings with how the viewing figures had been calculated (in particular, the use of estimate figures from some TV channels and how the Church had tried to compensate for multiple viewings by individual viewers), that was unlikely to render the claim misleading in those circumstances. Because of that, we concluded that the claim had been substantiated.
On that point, we investigated the ad under BCAP Code rules 3.1 (Misleading advertising) and 3.9 (Substantiation), but did not find it in breach.
We considered that viewers were likely to interpret the claim "giving aid" which was accompanied by images of a Church volunteer who had a stethoscope around her neck and was cradling a baby, and two volunteers carrying someone on a stretcher, to mean the Church provided direct aid, in forms such as medical assistance, rescuing victims and providing food, water and shelter and we would therefore expect the Church to provide evidence of their volunteer ministers giving such direct aid at disaster sites.
We considered that the information supplied by the Church demonstrated that volunteer ministers had worked in disaster zones around the world in some capacity between the years 1989 to 2014. In particular, they had provided a list of disaster zones their volunteer ministers had visited and a spreadsheet showing the number of individuals who had been helped each year during that period. We understood from the Church that the type of aid provided by volunteer ministers at disaster sites was varied, and that there was an initial emphasis on providing medical assistance. However, we noted that the evidence we had been supplied with to demonstrate the aid given to people at disaster sites was anecdotal.
We also had concerns about how the data, in terms of number of individuals given aid, had been calculated. We noted that Volunteer Ministers in Charge were under an obligation to collect from their volunteers that information but we had not been provided with evidence to show how the volunteers tracked that information and how it was recorded. In particular, it was unclear as to how volunteers monitored the number of individuals they had given aid to when they were working under pressure in challenging and fast-paced situations. It was also unclear as to what counted as 'giving aid' when the numbers were being calculated and we noted that the sample report referred to the number of people ‘helped’. As noted above, we considered viewers were likely to interpret ‘giving aid’ to mean the Church provided direct aid, in forms such as medical assistance, rescuing victims and providing food, water and shelter. We noted that the sample report referred to actions such as clearing debris from roads and buildings which, although of considerable help to the local community, might not constitute ‘giving aid’. It was also unclear whether the Church had included the total number of people in a community in cases where general community work had been carried out, and, if that was the case, we had concerns about whether that was an accurate method of calculating the number of people given aid. Furthermore, we had concerns that there appeared to be no checks in place to ensure that individuals who were given aid were not counted more than once towards the overall figure.
Because we had not been provided with suitable evidence to show how the specific figure of 24 million had been calculated and that it was accurate, we concluded that the claim had not been substantiated and was likely to mislead viewers.
On that point, the ad breached BCAP Code rules 3.1 (Misleading advertising) and 3.9 (Substantiation).
The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told the Church of Scientology International to ensure they held adequate evidence for any claims that viewers were likely to regard as objective and capable of substantiation.