Psychic scammer Maria Duval failed to foresee trouble over ‘her’ misleading advertisements. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is funded by the advertising and media industries, and has the stated purpose of ensuring that advertising is socially responsible and truthful. The ASA administers the Advertising Standards Complaints Board, which is the body that hears complaints about ads, and the Advertising Standards Complaints Appeal Board.
Self-styled clairvoyant Maria Duval’s magic seems to have deserted her. Her company has pulled all its New Zealand advertising, following a complaint the Consumers’ Institute of New Zealand made to the Advertising Standards Complaints Board (ASCB).
Who or what is Maria Duval?
Maria Duval is the frontname for a scam operating all over Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. It is listed as a scam on the Ministry of Consumer Affairs Scamwatch website and the Consumers’ Institute A-Z directory of scams.
We also published a news item on Maria Duval in February 2005, questioning why banks and credit card companies continue to profit from this scam.
The Ontario police, US Postal service, agencies in five Australian states, the New York Better Business Bureau and consumer agencies in Europe have all investigated or warned against the Maria Duval scam. We complained to the ASCB after Sunday News and the Timaru Herald published large advertisements promoting Maria Duval.
The ads promised to fulfil seven wishes for no charge – “Nothing to pay, everything is FREE!” it claimed. Among other things, you could expect to “win the lottery jackpot within a fortnight”, successfully bet on the horses, and “solve [your] financial problems once and for all”.
The underlying reason behind the ads was to build a list of potential victims, who would then be hounded to pay for dubious psychic services.
We have heard from several New Zealanders who have paid large sums to the Maria Duval scam, including some who have gone into debt.
The ASCB’s decision
The ASCB upheld our complaint. It stated that the “Complaints Board was unanimously of the view that the advertisement would create unrealistic expectations of life-changing benefits”, and therefore “there was no doubt it would be likely to mislead and abuse the trust of the consumer.”
Following our complaint, Swiss ad agency Infogest suspended all Maria Duval print ads in New Zealand.
Martin Craig is an investigative writer at the Consumers’ Institute of New Zealand.
How to complain to the ASA
- Don’t complain very often. Every TV ad for alcohol generates a complaint from Kate Sheppard types who are opposed to the product rather than the ad. To the ASA’s credit, every one of these complaints is considered before rejection.
- Be specific. The ASA has set criteria for complaints. Some of the complaints it gets are very vague – eg, two males kissing (in a safe sex ad) is disgusting and shouldn’t be allowed. Read the criteria, say which criteria you think the ad breaches, and say why it breaches them.
- Be realistic. The ASA has no legal powers. It is a self-regulation tool used by the advertising industry. In fact, to have your complaint accepted you must waive your right to use legal channels. The ASA can have a specific ad pulled but it cannot order fines or damages. It can’t order retractions or apologies either.
- The advertiser gets a right to respond. One of the reasons we made this complaint was to discover who the Maria Duval advertiser is. Even if the complaint had been rejected, this information would have been useful.