Advertising watchdog slaps down EE’s claims it is the best

UK MNO EE has been told it can no-longer display adverts which claim it has the best network in the UK by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

With a series of posters, websites and social media posts, EE managed to irritate Three with claims it was the best network in the UK, being ‘unrivalled’ and ‘unbeatable’. Three suggested the use of RootMetrics awards were not relevant and the small print was either absent or insufficiently prominent.

Although not all the complaints have been upheld, the ASA has stated EE is not able to claim it is the best network around without more consumer-friendly measurements, while the claim ‘Number 1. Network’ can be interpreted in so many different ways it could be considered misleading.

The ASA statement reads:

While we recognised the Rootscore [RootMetrics] report rated EE as the best mobile network operator, using various objective measures of their infrastructural network performance, because consumers could understand the claims “unbeatable”, “unrivalled” and “No.1 Network” more broadly to relate to the network operator and to take account of both objective measures of network performance and subjective consumer views of the service the mobile providers provided, we considered that EE should have made clearer that the claims “No.1 Network”, “unbeatable” and “unrivalled” related specifically to the report.

While the adverts cannot be used in their current form, and the telcos are regularly caught intentionally misleading consumers, this is one where you have to have a bit of sympathy for EE.

For those who are in the telecoms industry, the RootMetrics reports are perfectly adequate for measuring the performance of networks against each other. If EE was to make such as claim, using the report as evidence, at an industry conference, few would break stride. On performance metrics, such as download speed, availability and latency, EE does regularly feature as the best in the industry, though this is apparently not enough to validate it in the eyes of the ASA.

If it’s not accurate, it’s not real advertising – ASA slaps down Three’s 5G claims

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has ruled against the ‘if it’s not Three, it’s not real 5G’ ad campaign following complaints from rivals.

BT, Vodafone, an independent consultant in the telco industry and five members of the public lodged complaints against the advertising campaign, which was incredibly prominent throughout the last 6-12 months, and the ASA agrees. From here on, Three is not allowed to suggest or imply rival 5G networks are not real.

“Overall we considered they would interpret the ads to mean that the 5G services offered by other providers would not provide those significantly faster speeds and that there was little value in obtaining 5G from them,” the ASA ruling states.

“We understood that, all other factors being equal, greater bandwidth would allow a provider to support greater traffic capacity. However, because take up was still so limited, differences in 5G capacity between networks were unlikely to result in material differences in the experiences of end users at the time the ad appeared.”

Although this is a campaign which has spanned across multiple mediums, the complaints were directed towards a certain tweet and a wraparound advert which featured in the Metro, a free daily newspaper distributed prominently on the UK’s transport systems. The adverts featured mock characters such as Special Man and Burt Simpson, along with the statement ‘if it’s not Three, it’s not real 5G … We’re building the UK’s fastest 5G network’.

This is a creative and amusing approach to promote a topic which is anything but, however, it is directly and intentionally misleading. Of course Three’s rivals offer real 5G, and Three should be punished (although the ASA does not have this power), as these statements are taking advantage of a currently ill-informed general public; the vast majority do not understand what 5G actually is, therefore are likely to take such statements as gospel. It is irresponsible.

“This is part of the cut and thrust of mobile advertising,” said Gabriel Brown, Principal Analyst at Heavy Reading. “Technically, the claim ‘if it’s not Three, it’s not real 5G’ doesn’t stand up, but having 100 MHz of contiguous spectrum for 5G is an advantage of sorts for 3UK, so you’d expect them to make the most of it.

“In terms of down link speeds, the real-world customer experience will depend on how much spectrum the operator can aggregate across LTE and 5G. Looked at this way, where they have 5G coverage, all four UK operators offer speeds way beyond what any smartphone apps require.

“The UK is one of only two markets with four commercially live 5G networks – the other is the US, which is about to consolidate to three, plus a new entrant. You’d expect to see the competitive spirit at play as operators do all they can to stake a claim in 5G.”

The campaign is focused on the spectrum allocation which Three has built over the last few years, but also gained thanks to the £250 million UK Broadband acquisition in 2017. In fairness, it does have the largest spectrum haul and is the only telco with 100 MHz of contiguous, ‘touching’ or uninterrupted, spectrum in currently usable 5G airwaves.

Spectrum frequency Licence owner
3.41-3.46 GHz Vodafone
3.46-3.5 GHz Three/UK Broadband
3.5-3.54 GHz O2
3.54-3.58 GHz EE/BT
3.58-4.009 GHz Three/UK Broadband

And while some rivals of Three might downplay the advantage contiguous spectrum offers Three, Omdia’s lead 5G analyst, Dario Talmesio points out they were the first to complain about it.

In late 2018, Ofcom approved a request by Three to make alterations to its 3.6 GHz spectrum to create a 100 MHz contiguous block of 5G applicable spectrum. As Talmesio said, the three rivals complained to Ofcom this concession would offer Three an ‘unfair advantage’ in the 5G stakes, therefore there must be some validity to the claim contiguous spectrum offers a performance uplift.

The ITU, International Telecommunication Union, is in support of these claims also, suggesting contiguous spectrum would lead to the delivery of more efficient commercial 5G services.

Irrelevant as to whether there is justification to the concept that contiguous spectrum offers better 5G, the complaints are directed towards whether rivals 5G connectivity is a genuine upgrade or not.

“Overall, I can’t disagree with the decision,” said Talmesio. “If the contentious point is the reality or not of 5G, Three’s 5G might or might not be better, but 5G by Vodafone, EE, and O2 is as real as theirs.

“Ultimately customers will be judging them by the quality of what they experience on a daily basis.”

In response to the complaints, Three suggested there was adequate information on the website, even if it didn’t fully explain the statements in the ads. As Three has 100 MHz of immediately usable 5G spectrum in one contiguous block, a position rivals would not be able to match until the next spectrum auction, as well a network which features a cloud core and 20 data centres across the UK, the performance in terms of speed and latency exceeds that of rivals.

However, the ASA has said that this is misleading. The performance is unlikely to be ‘so significantly better’ therefore it would not render them substandard or not real 5G. Ultimately, the ASA does not believe this is a fair representation of the services being offered across the competitive landscape, and Three is not being responsible with its communications.

Once again, a member of the telco fraternity is being called out for misleading the consumer. It does seem to happen more frequently in this industry than others, perhaps owing to the technical nature; the general public is under-informed due to the speed of development and the complexity of the technology, therefore there is an opportunity to spew out half-truths or opaque statements which are taken as truthful.

The telco industry does not seem to want to change its ways with misleading statements unless regulation is brought in. Three has been caught out being irresponsible and misleading here, though none of the telcos are being fair to their customers.

Perhaps this is the time where the ASA should be given more power to punish. Three cannot use these adverts anymore, though it is likely to be mission accomplished now. The seed of doubt concerning rivals’ networks has already been planted in the minds of the general public. It might not grow into anything, but as there is no financial penalty for the misleading claims, this is a no-loss gamble for Three.

If there was a financial penalty for these statements, the telcos might be forced into being honest with their customers, but as it stands, the ASA has been defanged by bureaucracy.

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.

ASA bans ad claiming 5G causes infertility

Campaign group Electrosensitivity UK has been told its advert claiming 5G causes infertility and depression cannot be used in its current form as there is no evidence to support the statements.

In response to seven complaints made about the advert, which appeared during July and August, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has put an end to the group’s fearmongering campaign. The ASA simply stated the group lacks robust scientific evidence and is misleading the general public.

The advert featured a family of three holding hands as they walked their dog, along with four quotes from experts and their fears regarding the implementation of 5G. The advert also suggested 5G would cause male infertility, depression, disturbed sleep and headaches, as well as cancer.

In defence of its misleading claims, the organisation stated that no research had been done to prove 5G was safe, the radiation associated with the frequencies is unsafe, a World Health Organisation (WHO) factsheet on mobile connectivity was wrong and UK Government studies were inaccurate and dated.

The group also stated the question ‘How safe is 5G?’ was open-ended and unbiased, and allowed readers to accept, reject or ignore it.

In assessing the advert, the ASA has stated that due to the assertions of Electrosensitivity UK, the group would have to hold robust scientific evidence, including longitudinal studies with human participants. It does not have evidence of this nature.

On the claims the WHO factsheet, entitled ‘Electromagnetic fields and public health: mobile phones’, is in accurate, the ASA has rubbished this as a validation to mislead the general public. Claims the UK Government is also misinformed have also been rubbished.

However, evidence was presented by Electrosensitivity UK to validate its propaganda campaign. This evidence was found to be flimsy, with the ASA noting many of the articles presented were studies on animals rather than humans, or commentary from scientists, as opposed to robust and validated experiments to prove the claim.

In short, Electrosensitivity UK has no scientific justification to make such statements.

While this is a bold statement to make in-light of the drive towards the digital economy, this is not the first time Electrosensitivity UK has found itself on the wrong side of the ASA. In April 2018, another advert from the group was banned which claimed mobile phones caused numerous different health detriments including headaches, heart palpitations, skin disorders and cancer.

Again, the ASA banned this advert on the grounds that Electrosensitivity UK did not have the scientific evidence to support the claims that mobile technology was the cause of such afflictions. And once again, the evidence provided by Electrosensitivity UK to defend the advert was found to be flimsy.

What is worth noting is while there is little science to support the paranoia of Electrosensitivity UK, this is not the only group which is objecting to the rollout of 5G connectivity.

In Brighton during October, councillors and members of parliament were presented with evidence in an attempt to prevent the deployment of 5G equipment by the ‘Brighton and Hove 5G Alliance’. The group made similar health claims to Electrosensitivity UK, and the issue has been kicked down the road for review in the future. For the moment, it does appear paranoia has won out in Brighton.

Although 5G progress has been halted in Brighton, at least Electrosensitivity UK is being held to the proper standards. Unfortunately, the group seems to be a serial offender when it comes to the dissemination of misinformation. Perhaps it won’t be too long before the next attempt to mislead the general public with unvalidated health claims and mis-contextualised science.

ASA tells Three to be more accurate when whining

The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority has ruled Three’s campaign for a spectrum cap on mobile operators as misleading, primarily because it implied it was an independently run mission.

After pleading with Ofcom to impose a cap on the amount of spectrum any one telco could hold, Three threw a temper tantrum. Ofcom agreed a cap was necessary, but Three deemed it was not stringent enough. Instead of using the billions of profits its parent company has hidden away in Hong Kong to compete in the open market, Three used creative advertising campaigns to bend the opinion of the general public.

After a consultation, and a complaint by BT, the ASA has ruled the Three campaign was misleading the consumer and cannot run again in its present form. This is of course not a bad on Three’s freedom of speech rights to moan, but it must whinge in a more accurate manner from now on.

“We told Make The Air Fair to ensure its ads did not imply that it was an independent body campaigning on behalf of consumers,” the ASA said in its ruling.

“We also told them not to make claims which stated or implied that BT/EE ‘dominated’ the mobile market, that it could ‘ruin’ the UK’s mobile internet, or that if BT/EE bought more spectrum in the auction it would result in higher mobile prices, slower speeds and worse coverage for UK consumers, unless they held adequate substantiation.”

The campaign itself was a bit of an odd one for the telco space, mainly because it was creative and appealing to the consumer. Featuring a cartoon depiction of Ofcom CEO Sharon White as a superhero, the Make the Air Fair campaign demanded she take action to create a better mobile environment for the consumer.

It claimed that BT/EE ‘dominated’ the UK mobile market, it would ruin the mobile landscape in the future, if BT/EE was allowed more spectrum assets prices would rise, as well as decreased speeds, coverage and performance. The implication from the campaign, which featured across paid-for Facebook post, regional press ad, poster and internet display ads, was that this was an independent campaign group.

Being funded by Three, TalkTalk, CityFibre, Gamma and Relish, this was clearly not an independent campaign and the ASA found no evidence to substantiate the claims. In short, Three and its cronies were spinning assumptions presented as facts; very dodgy grounds. Such campaigns do very little to change the perception that telcos are liars, especially following the ‘up to’ farce.

While it is our job to remain impartial, Three makes it quite difficult at times. This campaign seems to be just another way in which the telco, which is owned by a Hong Kong based profit machine, is trying to avoid competing on a level playing field. The team constantly seem to be looking for a helping hand from regulators or politicians, playing the David vs. Goliath card. Perhaps this is an instance which will force the miserly Three to put its hand in its golden-lined pocket.