An advertising campaign telling people that it was “time to buy” Bitcoin has been banned for being misleading, after U.K. regulators ruled that it “irresponsibly” suggested investing in the cryptocurrency was straightforward.
The Advertising Standards Authority, or ASA, the U.K.’s independent advertising regulator, ruled on Wednesday that the ads took advantage of consumers’ lack of experience and gave the false impression that investing in Bitcoin was easy.
Crypto exchange Luno advertised itself on public transit around London in February with the message “If you’re seeing Bitcoin on the Underground, it’s time to buy.”
The ad prompted complaints to the advertising regulator about whether the message was misleading by failing to illustrate the risk of the investment, as well as whether it took advantage of consumers’ “inexperience or credulity.”
The ASA said that the ads’ presence on London public transit meant that it was likely to be seen by people without financial knowledge and experience of Bitcoin, who would expect it to be regulated with legal protections for investors. Moreover, the U.K.’s advertising code requires that investment marketing be clear that the value of investments is variable and could go down as well as up.
In fact, money invested into Bitcoin was subject to price fluctuations that could result in both gains and losses, the ASA said, and the unregulated nature of the crypto market means that consumers cannot seek recourse through ombudsman services.
“We considered the fact that Luno and the Bitcoin market were unregulated to be material information that consumers required in order to make informed decisions about Luno’s service, and should have been made clear in the ad,” the ASA said in its ruling. This formed the basis of its conclusion that the campaign was misleading.
The regulator also said that the statement “it’s time to buy” was a call to action giving the impression that investing in Bitcoin was straightforward and accessible.
“We understood that Bitcoin investment was complex, volatile, and could expose investors to losses and considered that stood in contrast to the impression given by the ad, that investment was simple and conventional,” the ASA said. “We concluded that the ad irresponsibly suggested that engaging in Bitcoin investment through Luno was straightforward and easy, particularly given that the audience it addressed,” it added.
The ASA’s ruling comes after Bitcoin and other crypto assets experienced a price crash amid increasing scrutiny from regulators.
The price of Bitcoin lost as much as 50% of its value from highs above $63,000 reached in April, but has recovered some ground and is now trading at around $39,000. The value of other popular crypto assets, such as ethereum and dogecoin, has similarly faced severe declines in the past month.
“Companies which offer crypto-assets with lofty promises to investors are coming under intense scrutiny, with regulators becoming increasingly concerned about the risks that these types of investment can pose to consumers,” said Susannah Streeter, an analyst at broker Hargreaves Lansdown.
“On top of being extremely volatile, most cryptocurrencies are unregulated, which not only adds another layer of uncertainty but also means that investors have little or no protection against fraud,” Streeter added.
In the U.K., the financial regulator warned in January about the risks of investing in crypto assets, and the governor of the Bank of England took aim at digital assets in a press conference earlier this month.
“I’m afraid they have no intrinsic value,” Andrew Bailey said. “Buy them only if you are prepared to lose all your money.”
Bailey’s comments added to concerns from
the head of the European Central Bank, who in January called for the global regulation of Bitcoin to stop “funny business” and money laundering.
According to the ASA, Luno said that the ads wouldn’t appear again in the form that was complained about.
Barron’s has reached out to Luno for comment.