ASA ruling: East Midlands Railway competition

ASA ruling: East Midlands Railway competition

You may be able to cancel a train, but you can’t cancel a competition, as East Midlands Railway (the trading name for Abellio East Midlands) discovered to their cost when the ASA upheld a complaint against the company.

The competition in question, which was launched in February 2021, invited members of the public to submit ideas for how East Midlands Railway could ‘Build back better’. The prize was a rather nice cheque for £5,000. However, although there were apparently a lot of entries, the train company felt they were of poor quality and weren’t practical, so it simply pulled the competition altogether.

First of all, it seems extraordinary to me that East Midlands Railway appears to have been prepared to outsource its plans for the future development of its business to the public. In its defence, the company said the competition was a contractual obligation under their franchise agreement, but whatever the prompt, competitions where you ask for ideas are always tricky, because you might think what I think is a good idea is a bad idea.

Clear criteria and an independent judge

That means you need clear judging criteria. Of course, in any competition you always need clear criteria (and at least one independent judge, which Prizeology is often asked to source), but that’s particularly true when the competition is asking for creative expressions or ideas.

In addition to what was, in East Midlands Railway’s view, the poor quality of the entries they received, the company told the ASA that they were also starting to see the financial impact of the pandemic on UK rail services and that it was the combination of those two factors that led to their decision to withdraw the competition and reject the submitted ideas.

Using the pandemic as an excuse seems problematic to me, especially in February this year, almost a year after the first lockdown. Mind you, at least the train company understood that anyone who had entered was likely to be disappointed when the competition was scrapped, but it believed it had acted within its terms and conditions.

Prizes must be awarded as described

As you might imagine, the ASA got involved when someone complained about the competition being cancelled, suggesting that this breached the CAP Code. After investigating, the ASA acknowledged that the promotion’s Ts&Cs stated that the competition could be cancelled, but said that did not absolve East Midlands of its obligation to comply with the code and, because it was cancelled, the prize was not awarded.

The code requires promoters to award prizes as described and the fact that the company had not identified any suitable ideas would not have prevented them from awarding the prize to the idea chosen to be the best by the judges. What’s more, the Ts&Cs did not set out what would happen if none of the ideas could be implemented.

What those Ts&Cs said was, “Ideas must be realistic and achievable, and able to be implemented quickly and easily by the promoter,” but as the ASA pointed out, that could be interpreted in different ways, and no further explanation was provided, so the ASA ruled that the criteria were not clearly set out.

East Midlands Railway got its knuckles wrapped by the ASA and were told to ensure that they awarded prizes in future competitions as described in their marketing communications, to make sure that promotions were conducted under proper supervision, and to avoid causing unnecessary disappointment – which sounds about right to me.

If you’d like to avoid getting yourself into this type of prize promotions pickle and could do with some professional help, call Prizeology on 020 7856 0402 or email us via

Sarah Burns is Prizeology’s Founder and Chief Prizeologist. 

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