ANIMAL welfare campaigners have welcomed a draft of a ruling by the UK's advertising watchdog that looks set to brand a Scottish Government advert misleading after it hailed the arrival of Giant pandas to Edinburgh Zoo as a "gift" from China.

An Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruling is expected to reveal that the watchdog has upheld a complaint by animal rights group, Scotland for Animals, that the advert wrongly portrayed the exchange as free.

In fact, the zoo will be paying £600,000 a year to the Chinese authorities for the next 10 years for the right to house the pandas.

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The advert, which appeared in various Scottish newspapers in November and December last year, described the pandas' arrival in the headline as a "celebration of links between Scotland and China".

The text went on to praise the event as a "symbolic gesture of friendship between the countries", adding that "the Chinese are gifting two giant pandas to live in Scotland".

The advertising column was attributed to Natural Scotland, the Scottish Government's environmental agency.

In its ruling, which will be officially released shortly, the ASA has upheld the campaigner's complaint, saying the term "gift" is open to misinterpretation by readers.

It said: "We considered that consumers would interpret the terms 'gift' and 'gifting' to mean that the pandas were given without payment.

The ASA said: "In the absence of text stating that the 'gift' was in exchange for a substantial payment, we considered that the claim 'in a symbolic gesture of friendship between the countries,' in conjunction with the terms 'gift' and 'gifting', implied that the pandas were given for free. Because that was not the case, we concluded that the ad was misleading."

John Patrick, spokesman for Scotland for Animals welcomed the ruling.

He said: "The Scottish Government including First Minister Alex Salmond and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon have attempted to mislead people at home and abroad that this was a great altruistic endeavour to protect an endangered species.

"In reality it was a shabby financial transaction using live animals as currency.

"It has been exposed that the transport of these animals to our country was part of a deal involving business leaders and the Scottish Government to grease up export opportunities. Animals should not be treated as commodities to be bought and sold on the world's markets."

The pandas, known as Sunshine and Sweetie, have boosted visitor numbers to Edinburgh Zoo by 200% since they went on display in December.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "We are disappointed by the ASA's recommendation to uphold one part of this complaint although we note no final decision has been reached.

"No money was, or is due to be, paid by either the Scottish Government or the UK Government to the Chinese authorities for the two giant pandas. Indeed, when the arrival of the pandas was announced last January, the Chinese Ambassador to the UK described them as a gift from China."