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BT and O2 fall foul of UK advertising rules

Both BT and O2 have been given a slap on the wrist for airing misleading advertisements in the UK aired across the course of 2019.

While the misleading claims from telcos are starting to be weaned out through new regulations, old habits occasionally creep through. Once again, creative marketers are determined to undermine the trust the consumer places in the telcos by making misleading, unsubstantiated or just inaccurate statements.

All of the telcos are guilty of this nefarious marketing practice, though looking at the number of complaints directed towards the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), BT, Virgin Media and Vodafone are particularly underhanded.

Starting with BT, the complaints were made by Virgin Media, Vodafone and fourteen members of the public, suggesting the team made misleading claims for the performance and technical capabilities of its wifi products.

Firstly, the accuracy of two statements were called into question; ‘only we guarantee wifi in every room’ and ‘we guarantee a strong signal in every room’, through the deployment of additional wifi discs which could be placed around the home. BT has said it has data from trials with 1078 customers which prove in 96% of cases full coverage could be achieved throughout the home with one additional disc, while the remainder were satisfied with two additional discs. Only one customer was entitled to a £20 discount as coverage could not be given throughout the home with the additional discs.

The ASA conceded that customers were likely to understand that exceptional circumstances could be applied, however the statements were too bold and promised too much, while the science to back up the claims could not be effectively reproduced on scale. The data was also not specific when it came to devices or time of day.

“…we were concerned that there appeared to be no reliable, reproducible methodology whereby each room or the further points from the router were tested, with no data reporting which rooms of the house had been tested,” the ASA statement reads.

The evidence did not show what speeds were being achieved on the devices, so we were unable to verify that the signal was strong enough to provide the minimum speed needed to carry out typical online activities.”

The second complaint was that BT advertising suggested these devices would not need to be plugged in. BT said it was common knowledge that electrical products would have to be plugged in, but in a world of wireless devices, this is simply not true. BT is either trying to pull a fast one or demonstrating incompetence with this response.

In terms of the O2 complaints, these were from Virgin Media and Three, questioning whether the ‘Custom Plans’ communication was accurate and appropriately comparing the O2 to tariffs to those of rivals.

In short, both complained that the adverts were not making it clear what tariffs were being compared, while Three suggested results of an overpayment calculator on O2’s did not reflect the actual costs charged by competitors and Virgin Media pointed out that it and Sky also offered custom plans. This appears to be a simpler case to consider for the ASA, as all telcos have made efforts to ensure customers are not continually charged for devices once the products have been paid for.

‘Custom Plans’ have been a significant element of the O2 advertising assault over the last 12-18 months, and looking at the financial statements, it appears to be a very successful campaign to entice customers away from rivals.

Naturally, O2 tried to defend its position, claiming it was doing everything possible to compare comparative deals and that the consumer could make their own reasonable assumptions, though the ASA clearly disagreed.

According to the ruling, the explanation below the overpayment calculator were not detailed enough, O2 did not do enough to indicate rivals also have unbundled deals and it could not make such direct assertions as it does not know the prices rivals charged for devices. The advertisement was deemed misleading as much of the claims were based on assumptions and inaccurate statements.

Misleading advertising is not something which is going to go away anytime soon, and unfortunately the telcos don’t seem to want to sort their own problems out. The dreaded ‘up to’ metric has been removed from the landscape, but this was only down to regulatory intervention from Ofcom not the telcos wanted to be more honest with their customers.

Unfortunately the ASA has not been empowered to do anything which would genuinely curb the creative advertisers who seem hellbent on misleading the consumer. Telcos seem to pray on the misinformed, quoting numbers which mean little to many and self-validation techniques which few have the time and/or competence to make use of.

The ASA does not have the power to direct financial penalties to those who fall short of expectations, nor does it have the manpower to react in a time appropriate manner. In these examples, the BT advert aired in July 2019, while O2’s hit the screens in January 2019. These adverts are no longer being used as the telco has already realised the rewards. All the ASA can do is issue a generic statement, dictating the adverts can no-longer be used in their current form; this is redundant action.

With little enforcement, the responsibility to be fair and reasonable falls on the advertisers. Unfortunately, these companies have shown little respect to the consumer to communicate with them honestly and accurately. Telcos are as bad, if not worse, than most and there seems to be little ambition to change for the better.


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