On 14 June 2005 the Advertising Standards Complaints Board met to consider Complaint 05/116, filed by Martin Craig for the Consumers’ Institute, concerning the Maria Duval psychic services advertisements. This is an abridged version of their deliberations.
Complaint: The newspaper advertisements carried the following headline and offers:
“Maria Duval, the very celebrated clairvoyant, Makes you this strange offer:
See the 33 Wishes below, and choose those you’d Most like to see coming true in your life NOW!
“I’ll try to realize them FOR YOU FREE!”
Choose your 7 wishes NOW!
… 1. Win the lottery jackpot within a fortnight.
… 3. Win on the horses.
… 12. Do a round-the-world tour.
… 32. Solve my financial problems once and for all.
… 33. Be able to stop working with a substantial monthly income.
Nothing to pay, everything is FREE!
Receive also a free prediction
… offering you free a special personal prediction….”
It also contained the wording: “FREE FOR YOU” and “FREE OF CHARGE”
The Complainant, Consumer’s Institute, said:
“I am writing to complain about print advertising for Maria Duval, a known scam which is listed on the government’s Scamwatch website.
“While the ads in question did not require consumers to send money, Consumers’ Institute members report that requests for money quickly follow any response to this ad.
“The ads breach the Advertising Code of Ethics Rule 2 – Truthful presentation because they are likely to deceive or mislead the consumer, make false and misleading representation, abuse the trust of the consumer and exploit his/her experience and lack of knowledge.
“The ads breach the Advertising Code of Ethics Rule 6 – Fear, because they exploit the superstitious.
“The ads breach Rule 2 by stating ‘Nothing to pay, everything is free’; ‘I fully understand that I’ll never be asked for any money in return for your help with fulfilling my 7 secret wishes, either now or later’; and ‘Maria Duval…is going to undertake for you a ritual known by her alone, which will allow your secret wishes to come true in your life’.
“The ads breach Rule 6 by offering ‘more luck’; offering to perform ‘this very special ritual’ for the consumer; referring to ‘the astonishing powers of Maria Duval’; referring to ‘Miracles’; and offering to ‘allow your Secret Wishes to come true’.
“The Maria Duval scam is well-known and international. The purpose of the ads is to gather names and contact details from potential victims. Consumers will be contacted repeatedly and asked to pay money.
“We have heard from several New Zealanders who have paid large sums to the Maria Duval scam, including some who have gone into debt to do so. I also believe that publications act unethically by accepting advertisements for any product or service listed by Scamwatch. Publishers have no excuse for failing to monitor the site. Any publisher who accepts ad revenue from a scammer is profiting from the scam and is failing in their ethical responsibility to their readers.”
The chairman ruled that the following provisions were relevant:
Basic Principle 1: All advertisements must comply with the laws of New Zealand.
2. Truthful Presentation – Advertisements should not contain any statement or visual presentation or create an overall impression which directly or by implication, omission, ambiguity or exaggerated claim is misleading or deceptive, is likely to deceive or mislead the consumer, makes false and misleading representation, abuses the trust of the consumer or exploits his/her lack of experience or knowledge.
6. Fear – Advertisements should not exploit the superstitious, nor without justifiable reason, play on fear.
Counsel on behalf of the Advertiser said:
“Our clients instruct that, as far as they are aware, the advertisements in question are not in contravention of any laws of New Zealand. Our clients instruct that the advertisements are not misleading or deceptive, or are likely to mislead or deceive the public.
“Our clients note that Ms Duval’s services have been listed on the New Zealand Ministry of Consumer Affairs’ Scamwatch website as an astrology/psychic scam. Scamwatch defines astrology scams as promotions that ‘advise that you could come into a fortune if only you send funds to mail boxes for talismans, golden eggs or fortune telling guides to personal wealth’.
“Our clients instruct that Ms Duval’s services do not fall under this category. Ms Duval’s life mission is to help others, either in predicting the future or to fulfil their wishes in life. She is a real-life person who has a history of 25 years of accurate and verifiable predictions behind her. She regularly works with doctors and the police, and has been consulted by prominent people. She has made about 2400 television appearances, and has been a guest on radio programmes on more than 8400 occasions. She has also appeared in more than 700 press articles, and we enclose a montage of press clippings for your information and reference. As such, our clients are aggrieved that Ms Duval has been listed on Scam-watch, as Ms Duval does not deceive, exploit or mislead the public.
“With respect to the article that was published in the March 2005 edition of Consumer, our clients instruct that as far as they are aware, Ms Duval has never been investigated by the Ontario police, US Postal Service, the New York Better Business Bureau, or in Europe.
“Our clients deny that the advertisements in question are likely to deceive or mislead the consumer, make false and misleading representations, abuse the trust of the consumer and exploit his/her experience and lack of knowledge.
“Our clients also deny that the purpose of the advertisements is to gather names and contact details or to repeatedly request for money following the response to the advertisements. Our clients instruct that Ms Duval provides a bona fide service and does not exploit the consumer. If any payment is asked for in respect of readings or predictions by Ms Duval, our clients instruct that full refunds are given to customers who are not completely satisfied with her services. As such, our clients instruct that customers would not be prejudiced financially if they are not satisfied with Ms Duval’s services.
“Our clients deny that the advertisements in question are in breach of Rule 6. Even if the advertisements are targeted at those who believe in astrology, psychic or clairvoyant powers, our clients instruct that Ms Duval does not exploit these customers who hold such beliefs, and does not play on their fears. She offers a service to help people realise their dreams and to give them hope.
“Whilst our clients deny the allegations raised in your letter, they have decided to suspend all Maria Duval print advertisements in New Zealand until all issues relating to this complaint have been resolved. Our clients intend to seek assistance from legal counsel in New Zealand to assist them in developing print advertisements that will comply with the Advertising Codes of Practice in New Zealand.”
The Timaru Herald, Fairfax Sunday Newspapers and ACP Media Ltd made statements on behalf of the media in which they agreed to abide by the board’s decision, and/or not to run Maria Duval advertisements in the future.
The Complaints Board noted the Complainant, Consumers’ Institute was of the view that the advertisements abused the trust of the consumer by offering services they could not reasonably deliver, and as such it was misleading.
As a preliminary matter, the chairman clarified for the Complaints Board that it would not deliberate on Basic Principle 1 (All advertisements must comply with the laws of New Zealand), as the complaint did not refer to any specific law which the advertisement may or may not have breached.
Accordingly, the task before the Complaints Board was to determine whether the Maria Duval advertisement would be “likely to deceive or mislead the consumer” as stated in Rule 2 and/or whether it exploited the superstitious, thereby breaching Rule 6.
The Complaints Board advised that it was obliged to confine its consideration to the content of the actual advertisement rather than considering the subsequent interaction between the advertiser and the consumer as alleged by the Complainant. However, it did note that the advertiser had been listed on the Ministry of Consumer Affairs Scamwatch website, and this in its view indicated that the advertisement had been found to be misleading by that organisation. The Complaints Board was unanimously of the view that the advertisement would create unrealistic expectations of life changing benefits, and thereby it effected a serious breach of Rule 2 of the Code, as there was no doubt that it would be likely to mislead and abuse the trust of the consumer.
The Complaints Board was not required to make a ruling under Rule 6 of the Code, as the issues contained therein had been subsumed by Rule 2.
It noted that all Maria Duval advertisements had been suspended from publication in New Zealand by the advertiser and that legal counsel would be sought in the preparation of new advertisements to ensure they complied with the Advertising Codes of Practice. It also noted the responsible attitude taken by the media concerned with regard to future advertisements for Maria Duval, and that the Scam-watch website, having been brought to their attention, would be checked before publication of such advertisements in the future.
The Complaints Board ruled to uphold the complaint.