The Gas Safe Register – getting avatars wrong

I’ve just had my boiler fixed by a nice guy called Laurence, who runs a business from the bottom of my road. He’s on the Gas Safe Register (that’s CORGI in old money) so I know he’s a safe pair of hands. The only thing is, you might be forgiven for thinking that your local gas engineer was very far from a safe pair of hands, thanks to a “feature” of their website: each engineer has a photo for identification purposes. Shot on stark white backgrounds, taken with a hard face on flash, little attention paid to dress, and often distorted through poor scanning, these are not reassuring profile pictures of your friendly gas fitter – they are scary mug shots, straight out of a most wanted gallery. Something like this:


Would you let these guys come and fix your boiler? I’m guessing not. Yet the photographs used by Gas Safe on their website look exactly like these. Clearly there’s some common sense at play here. When the gas fitter comes, you can verify them; this is good for personal safety and it ensures that you are letting a qualified fitter into your home. At the level of verification, the mug shots make sense. At the level of marketing and within the the context of a website, they are somewhat problematic, because we have learned to respond to these sort of images in a certain way (read a bit of John Tagg‘s work for some excellent insight into this). 

The Gas Safe Register is a primary route to find a new gas fitter, and so is the “first moment of truth” (to use a marketing phrase) for each gas fitter. Let’s step through the thought process that you go through when searching the Gas Safe Register:

1. My heating is broken; I need a gas fitter.
2. This is gas – I’m not having some dodgy bastard come around my house.
3. I know I’ll use the Gas Safe Register to find a reliable and qualified tradesman.
4. Here’s the list of people local to me.
5. Oh photos! But… they all look like dodgy bastards! Seriously, they look like criminals. What do I do now?

Not only do we tend to respond to an “official” mug shot in a certain way, but online we have begun to learn about personal presentation and how to select an avatar for ourselves in all of our online profiles. Many of us use Facebook and other social networks and most of us will carefully chose avatars that represent the person they want the world to see. This makes the Gas Safe photos even more jarring: we expect a certain level of performance and personal brand building online, and these images do not deliver that.

Clearly the Gas Safe website wasn’t built to a social media brief or even a primarily marketing brief. It’s fairly clear that the brief was about verification. It exists in the minds of its owners as fact checking system. The public are expected to find the engineer, and then check they are legitimate through the Gas Safe search tools. However, the website exists within a wider world of websites. It is actually the best start point to find a tradesman, because many of the registered gas fitters do not have a website. As such, a page within the register is the online presence for each of these companies, and in that regard it is failing its members and the public through performing its own original brief.

By Jon Hickman

Hi, I'm Jon. I teach and research digital culture, social media and new media practice at Birmingham City University. Find out more about me with this lovely CV: Find out about my work at the Birmingham Centre for Media & Cultural Research: