Marketing messages and service messages

September 2023

How to avoid falling foul of the PECR rules

Many businesses need to send important or essential messages to their customers by email or SMS, or may telephone them. But if the content of these messages strays into becoming promotional in nature, the marketing rules under the UK’s Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR) will apply.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has issued a number of fines over the years where marketing messages have been ‘disguised’ as service messages. I’ve included a few examples below.

The risk for businesses is it can take just one, or a handful of complaints to cause a problem.

What’s a service message?

Essentially, a service message is a communication sent to individuals purely for administrative or customer service reasons. Such messages must be neutral in tone, providing just important and necessary information.

The ICO tells us these must not include any advertising or promotional materials and that the key is in the ‘phrasing, tone and context’.

Pure services messages can be sent to everyone provided they only contain essential factual information for your customer. Some examples would include:

  • confirming an order/purchase
  • confirming a delivery date/time
  • providing necessary event information when someone has purchased a ticket (free or paid for)
  • notifying people you require certain information to comply with the law, for example, an airline requesting passport information before an overseas flight
  • informing service users about essential changes, for example, telling leisure centre members the swimming pool has been unexpectedly closed
  • communication changes to the terms and conditions of a contract or agreement the individual has with you, or material changes to privacy information

What’s a marketing message?

If a message is actively promoting or encouraging an individual to make use of a particular service, a special offer, or upgrade for example, then it is likely to be direct marketing. This would include where part but not all of the message, or phone call, is of a promotional nature.

The Data Protection Act 2018 defines direct marketing as: the communication (by whatever means) of advertising or marketing material which is directed to particular individuals. A definition which applies under PECR.

It’s a broad definition and covers any advertising, marketing or promotion of products and services directed targeted at a specific individual or individuals. It also includes promoting aims and ideals, so covers fundraising and campaigning.

Regulatory communications

Some businesses, for example in the financial sector, will be required by a statutory regulator such as the Financial Conduct Authority to make people aware of specific information.

The ICO has published direct marketing and regulatory communications guidance. Again it depends on the context and tone of the message, but some examples are provided of messages which are unlikely to count as direct marketing.

  • give advance warning of changes to terms, conditions or tariffs
  • explain about statutory complaint or compensation schemes
  • warn about fraud and how to report it
  • remind people of how to get in touch if they are struggling with payments
  • provide offers of support for those customers most at risk of harm.

Where businesses have got it wrong

Navigating the line between service messages and marketing messages can be tricky, as the following companies discovered.

We all have feet of clay; I’m sure many other organisations are shimmying along this regulatory tightrope. Some consciously pushing the boundaries, others inadvertently breaking the rules.

American Express

In 2021 AMEX was fined £90,000 for sending 4 million emails, which were judged to fall under the definition of direct marketing, to customers who’d not given their consent or who’d opted out of marketing.

The nature of these emails ranged from encouraging people to download the AMEX app, to how to make the most of an AMEX card, rewards and offers, how to earn more rewards by referring friends, getting an improved rate on cashback, and so on.

The key here is AMEX’s decision to internally classify these emails as ‘service’ messages, which is why customers who’d opted out / objected to marketing still received them. The ICO disagreed and determined these were direct marketing, and marketing opt-outs should have been applied.

And just to be clear, in this case the ICO found AMEX hadn’t deliberately flouted the rules but did find them to be negligent.

In its defence AMEX said the emails were an integral part of the service they provide to AMEX customers. Their argument was that a crucial aspect of being an AMEX customer was taking advantage of member benefits. They said this was cited by customers as one of the primary reasons for having an AMEX card. AMEX therefore determined these messages were necessary and “required to be sent based on legal and contractual requirements”.

The ICO however assessed the content of the emails and found the following:

  • The emails encouraged customers to use their AMEX credit cards to make purchases or, in specific cases, download an app
  • The emails were clearly of an advertising and promotional nature
  • None were “neutrally worded and purely administrative”

Whatever their stated purpose internally, the ICO found the email content fell under the definition of direct marketing. The emails were aimed at encouraging customer actions from which AMEX would financially gain.

The penalty notice reveals AMEX received twenty-two complaints about ‘service’ emails during the period investigated. Five people complained directly to the ICO, some after initially raising their concerns with AMEX (but not all). It’s also worth noting some people complained because AMEX refused to let them opt-out because they viewed the messages as service ones not requiring an opt-out capability.

What struck me was the tiny percentage of complainants, especially when you consider AMEX sent out four million emails. (Admittedly this figure is likely to include repeated emails to the same individuals).

It starkly illustrates how only a few complaints can cause a world of pain. (There have been cases in the past based on a single complaint).


In 2022 the ICO fined Halfords £30,000 for sending half a million emails without consent. This case shows how just one complaint directly to the ICO triggered unwelcome scrutiny.

Halfords sent an email campaign to customers letting them know about a Government ‘Fix your Bike’ scheme during the Covid pandemic, whereby cyclists could take advantage of a voucher towards repairs. A voucher which could be used with any of a list of approved repairers or mechanics.

This was sent to customers who had opted out of marketing in the past and the email contained a disclaimer stating; This is a service message and does not affect your marketing opt-in status. The email didn’t include an unsubscribe link.

In exchanges with the ICO, Halfords claimed they were acting in the public interest to support a Government scheme in a one-off campaign during the pandemic. Halfords also pointed to the fact that 3,700 people took up the opportunity to claim the voucher, and only received seven complaints themselves from almost half a million ‘service’ messages.

However the ICO said the content of the email promoted Halfords, and was therefore a marketing message.

  • It was found to imply a connection between Halfords and the scheme, emphasising the service provided by Halfords.
  • People were told to “Visit to find out more now”. The regulator said this not only signposted individuals to the company’s website but included ‘a sense of urgency in the messaging, which is a typical marketing strategy.’

The enforcement notice reveals how much information companies need to provide when they end up on the ICO’s radar.

  • A lack of clarity was initially provided surrounding the numbers of emails delivered/received
  • No policies and procedures existed to guide staff in respect of PECR

It goes to show it’s all very well to have a Data Protection Policy, but having specific marketing guidelines shouldn’t be overlooked.

What lessons can we learn?

It pays to carefully scrutinise any service messages which may be in danger of crossing the line. Give your staff clear policies/guides on the marketing rules and your internal approach.

These cases and others before it, show the ICO takes a strict interpretation and a handful of complaints can put you firmly in their sights.