Solid or not solid: Oak Furniture Land says ASA has overturned ‘hundreds of years’ of understanding
Oak Furniture Land has said an Advertising Standards Authority ruling that it can no longer describe its furniture as ‘solid hardwood’ could have far-reaching implications for the furniture retail industry and that the ASA has redefined terminology that has been used for hundreds of years.
The ASA ruled that because the retailer used an oak wrap around pieces of wood glued together in the legs of its products, it could not describe them as solid hardwood, as shoppers would expect the leg to be made from one piece of wood.
The firm says it has launched an appeal against the ruling.
The chain’s dining table legs have between three and 10 pieces of wood, depending on the design, that run the length of the leg.
‘We are baffled and surprised by the ASA’s adjudication, and we vigorously stand by our claims that we do not and never have used veneers in our products and that we only sell 100% solid hardwood. We feel the ASA has misinterpreted age-old definitions of firstly, what is classed as solid and secondly, what is classed as a veneer,’ says Jason Bannister, Oak Furniture Land md and founder.
‘In order to aid the ASA in adjudicating, we actioned an independent survey of 2,000 customers asking about their understanding of the word “solid”. The ASA also consulted a panel of industry experts, and finally the ASA’s own advisory panel. The findings of the customers, industry experts and the ASA’s own advisory panel all concluded that our methods should be classed as solid, and they confirmed that we do not use veneers. However, the ASA has overlooked this advice and have effectively redefined the category.
‘We firmly disagree with them on two points: Solid: The ASA has claimed that any timber that is not one piece, fully intact and from a single tree should no longer be classed as solid. Take a look at most table tops, worktops, flooring and doors that are currently classed as solid. You will see that they are normally made up of planks of solid timber, usually glued together. These panels are then used to make furniture. The ASA has told us that these panels should not be classed as solid, effectively redefining terminology that has been used as solid for hundreds of years.
‘Veneer: when referring to one of our dining table legs, the ASA has deemed that using a thinner, yet weight-bearing oak, surrounding a planked oak mentioned above, is classed as a veneer. We firmly disagree with this stance from the ASA.
‘Alongside a myriad of experts and customers, our belief is that the definition of a veneer is a thin sliver of real wood lifted from solid timbers. This sliver is usually glued over the top of MDF or chipboard and does not offer any kind of strength-bearing to the product itself – it is simply a cosmetic covering. This is not a method we use at Oak Furniture Land. The timbers the ASA have deemed as veneer are weight-bearing timbers, integral to the structure of the table leg.’
Bannister says the chain has appealed ‘in the hope that common sense will prevail. We would like to reiterate that a panel of accredited industry experts, thousands of customers and even the ASA’s own advisory panel are in agreement that we do not sell veneers and that our products are 100% solid.’
A lengthy ruling by the ASA outlined the considerable lengths Oak Furniture Land went to to argue it was right to describe its furniture as solid and why it rejected those arguments.
‘Three ads for the furniture store, Oak Furniture Land, seen in May 2016:
a. A TV ad featured two characters who repeated the phrase "No veneer in 'ere" three times as they walked round a furniture store and appeared to examine different furniture. The voice-over described the advertiser's products as "Solid hardwood dining sets". One of the characters then said "Always remember to ask, ‘Is there any veneer in here?’"
b. A YouTube ad which featured the same two characters as ad (a). They walked round the furniture store, examined different pieces of furniture and stated "No veneer in 'ere". One of the characters then swung his arms round in a circular motion, raised his voice and said "No veneer in 'ere". The voice-over stated "100% solid hardwood furniture". The ad featured a sign "No veneer in 'ere!" on the store's entrance, as one of the characters said "No veneer in 'ere". The ad ended with text "100% Solid".
c. The FAQ section of the advertiser's website featured the question "Is your furniture really 100% solid hardwood?". The response stated "All of our cabinet furniture is made from 100% solid hardwood from top to toe; veneer, plywood and chipboard are never used". Further text stated "As our adverts say - There's no veneer in 'ere. The timbers used have been kiln dried using state of the art technology which ensures minimal movement and means, if looked after correctly, your furniture will last for years to come".’
Devon building company AJ Proctor Builders ‘understood that some of the advertiser’s furniture was made using an “oak wrap” technique, challenged whether the claims in ads (a) to (c), that the advertiser's products were made from solid hardwood and did not contain any veneer, were misleading.
‘Oak Furniture Land believed that consumers would understand the term “no veneer” to mean that their products did not contain a thin layer of hardwood surrounding a cheaper or less desirable material such as chipboard or medium density fibreboard (MDF). They said that the true purpose of a veneer was to create the impression that furniture was made from hardwood, when it actually was not. In the case of their furniture, they stressed that there was no other material but hardwood. They said the claims were based on a historical industry-wide application of the term, and provided eight definitions of “veneer” from dictionaries and specialist websites. Those included “a thin decorative covering of fine wood applied to a coarser wood or other material” (Oxford English Dictionary), “a thin layer of wood or plastic that covers something made of a cheap material and improves its appearance” (Macmillan Dictionary) and “a veneer is a thin sheet of wood or some other material. It is usually of better or superior quality, and placed over any lesser quality material such as an inexpensive wood, particle board or engineered wood” (furniture.about.com). They also provided a number of examples of competitor veneered products, which were primarily made from materials such as chipboard and MDF. They believed those were therefore consistent with consumer expectation of veneered furniture. They also submitted an email from the Furniture Industry Research Association (FIRA), who had conducted a preliminary assessment of an Oak Furniture Land table leg. FIRA’s initial finding was that the table leg comprised of multiple laminated solid wood sections of varying width and thickness, but that those sections exceeded the thickness normally used to describe a veneer.
‘Oak Furniture Land said that there was no British or European standard for “solid hardwood”, and believed that the term would be understood by the average consumer to mean that the products in question contained nothing other than hardwood. They provided a legal source supplier information form and a copy of their ‘new production introduction’ process in support of their argument that they used only solid hardwood. They said that the average consumer would expect a piece of furniture described as “100% solid hardwood” to be made from multiple pieces of solid hardwood that were joined together using manufacturing techniques such as gluing. They would not expect every product to have been whittled down from a single piece of hardwood. They provided examples of other advertisers’ furniture that was described as being made from “solid wood”, and pointed out that those products contained more than one piece of wood. They also provided three definitions of solid wood from furniture specialists, which included “‘solid wood’ means that it is composed of wood, with no particle board or wood fiber…for tops and sides of furniture, boards are biscuited and glued together to create wide panels” (Demesne.info).
‘Oak Furniture Land provided a consumer survey, which they said found that 72% of respondents did not expect solid hardwood to be made from a single piece of wood and 73% of respondents understood a piece of furniture with a veneer to apply to furniture made with a layer of wood covering lesser quality wood or other material. They also provided a report by an expert in matters relating to furniture construction and manufacturing processes. The report expressed the expert’s view on the use of the term “veneer” within the furniture industry, and included his comments on construction techniques that he felt could be described as producing “solid hardwood furniture”.
‘Oak Furniture Land said that the “oak wrap” technique referenced by the complainant was an industry recognised cabinetry technique for joining pieces of solid hardwood together. They clarified it was only used on their furniture legs, and provided evidence which indicated that it was not used on their table tops. They said that the technique was one of several used by Oak Furniture Land to join pieces of solid hardwood together to cope with natural movement of real wood or to provide optimum strength. They said it strengthened the furniture by preventing it from expanding or contracting and reducing the chance of warping or splitting; it also meant that it was less susceptible to moisture content due to the moisture resistant adhesives. Therefore, they argued that consumers could not be misled to their detriment as the “oak wrap” technique meant that the legs were of a superior composition to comparable timber that contained legs made from a single piece of hardwood. They said the technique described multiple pieces of solid oak joined with other pieces of solid oak to form a piece of solid hardwood furniture, and was therefore consistent with the claim “100% solid hardwood”. They described the composition as “solid oak, with solid oak wrapped around it”, and emphasised that the wrap did not hide a cheaper or less desirable material, which was, by definition, what veneer meant. They submitted one of their table legs and a competitor’s table leg that was made from particleboard with an outer layer of oak.
‘Clearcast said that they had approved ad (a) after Oak Furniture Land confirmed that they only used 100% hardwood in their products, and that they did not use veneers, chipboards or MDF. They said the advertiser had said that they ensured this through their own quality control teams, which were based in all of their manufacturing facilities.
‘The ASA acknowledged the findings of the consumer survey, but due to the way the questions were framed, we considered it did not show whether respondents would consider the specific manner in which Oak Furniture Land’s table legs were constructed to be consistent with the claims “no veneer”, “solid hardwood” and “100% solid hardwood”. We also acknowledged the views expressed in the expert’s report, but considered that those views were not necessarily indicative of the perspective of the average consumer who saw the ads.
‘We understood that Oak Furniture Land used an “oak wrap” technique to construct their furniture legs, whereby the legs were formed by gluing numerous small segments of hardwood together, with a thin outer layer of hardwood wrapped around them. That meant the segments of wood used to construct the furniture were not visible. While we acknowledged that the outer layer covered a higher quality base material than was the case with some other veneered furniture, we considered that the “oak wrap”, in effect, functioned as a veneer. Furthermore, while we agreed with the advertiser that consumers would not expect whole units of furniture to be whittled down from a single piece of wood, we considered they would be unlikely to expect from the claims “100% solid hardwood” and “solid hardwood” that parts of the furniture would actually be made from numerous smaller segments of wood glued together.
‘We acknowledged that the furniture was exclusively made from hardwood. However, because we considered the furniture’s construction was inconsistent with likely consumer expectation of solid hardwood items made without veneer, as set out above, we concluded that the claims “solid hardwood”, “100% solid hardwood” and “no veneer” were misleading.
‘Ad (a) breached BCAP rule 3.1 (Misleading advertising), and ads (b) and (c) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 3.1 (Misleading advertising).
‘The ads must not appear again in their current forms. We told Oak Furniture Land not to state or imply that products had “no veneer” or were made from “solid hardwood” if they were manufactured using the “oak wrap” technique or other similar techniques.’