Direct marketing: household names fined for breaking the rules

September 2021

What did We Buy Any Car, Saga and Sports Direct get wrong?

The ICO has announced a series of fines for companies which have contravened the direct marketing rules under the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR).

Fines amounting to £495,000 have been issued to Sports Direct, We Buy Any Car, Saga Personal Finance and Saga Services.

Contraventions include not being able to evidence valid consent, not abiding by the conditions of the ‘soft-opt in’ exemption, and emails sent via affiliates without valid consent.

In the ICO blog announcing the fines, their Head of Investigations commented:

“These companies should have known better. Today’s fines show the ICO will tackle unsolicited marketing, irrespective of whether the messages have been orchestrated by a small business or organisation, or a leading household name. The law remains the same and we hope today’s action sends out a deterrent message that members of the public must have their choices and privacy respected.”

It’s worth noting the Government’s data regime reform consultation proposes increasing the maximum fines under PECR to be in line with GDPR. So in future we could see much higher sums being levied for breaking the rules.

We Buy Any Car

Key finding: failure to meet all ‘soft opt-in’ conditions

We Buy Any Car (WBAC) has been fined £200,000 for sending 191.4 million marketing messages and 3.6 million SMS messages in contravention of the PECR rules.

WBAC came to the attention of the ICO due to complaints received directly to their online reporting tool. Between October 2019 and January 2020, the Regulator received 10 complaints from individuals, and a further two complaints from the same individual.

Much of the investigation focuses on email communications which were sent after people had requested a valuation. People can use the WBAC website to input details about their vehicles to get a valuation.

WBAC claimed it relied on the ‘soft opt-in’ exemption for such messages and said people would anticipate further email communications as part of what was described as ‘journey emails’.

The ICO found while people were informed about these communications, they were not given an opportunity to opt-out at the point their details were collected. This is one of the key conditions businesses have to meet when relying on the soft opt-in exemption.

A clear message to other businesses to assess whether they are taking any risks when relying on the ‘soft opt-in’.  Are you meeting these core conditions?

  • The contact details are collected during the course of a sale, or negotiations for a sale, of a product or service
  • An opportunity to refuse or opt-out of the marketing is given at the point of collection, and in every subsequent communication
  • You only send marketing about your own similar products and services


Key finding: inadequate consent obtain for marketing by affiliates/partners

Saga Services Limited (SSL) has been fine £150,00 for sending more than 128 million emails in contravention of the PECR rules. Saga Personal Finance (SPF) has been fined £75,000 for sending 28 million emails.

These cases focus on the potential risks when using partners or affiliates to send marketing on your behalf. Both SSL and SPF paid partners and affiliates to send promotional emails on their behalf for lead generation purposes.

The companies were relying on ‘indirect consent’. In other words they hadn’t collected people’s details directly from them, and were using other parties’ lists to promote their services.

The enforcement notice points to the ICO’s direct marketing guidance which states:

“organisations need to be aware that indirect consent will not be enough for texts, emails or automated calls. This is because the rules on electronic marketing are stricter, to reflect the more intrusive nature of electronic messages.”

The guidance goes on to say ‘indirect consent’ may be valid, but only if it is clear and specific enough. Providing an individual with a long, seemingly exhaustive list of categories of organisations that may send marketing communications to them is not likely to be sufficient.

In summary, it was found that SSL and SPF were the instigators of these email communications, and the ‘consent’ collected by affiliates and partners was not sufficient.

A lesson here for all organisations using marketing affiliates and partners, to conduct due diligence. You can’t just simply accept claims by those sending emails on your behalf that they have a ‘fully consented list’.

Sports Direct

Key finding: inability to produce evidence of marketing permissions

Sports direct has been fined £70,000 for sending 2.5 million email messages without valid consent.

The company came to the ICO’s attention after the regulator received 12 complaints via is online reporting tool.

This case focuses on a ‘re-engagement’ campaign whereby Sports Direct had identified an ‘aged dataset’ to send communications to. These were described as records which had not unsubscribed – “a category of data that showed as being opted in to receive email marketing but had not received any marketing emails”.

Sports Direct informed the ICO it was either relying on the ‘soft opt-in’ or ‘consent’ to contact this ‘aged dataset’.

However, during the ICO investigations Sports Direct could not provide sufficient evidence it had valid permission to contact people.

In one case Sports Direct couldn’t identify a lawful basis, because the customer in question had asked for their details to be erased, so they had no record at all.

This ruling acts as reminder to all organisations to keep adequate records and specifically highlights the risks of emailing customers who you haven’t been in contact with for some time.

It also confirms that, even if someone submits an erasure request, you should keep minimised but detailed enough records for a suitable period of time so you can adequately respond to any subsequent complaints.

Full details of the above enforcement action can be found on the ICO website.