What is it with telcos and the ‘creative’ approach to advertising honesty?

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has once again had to step in to put a stop to telco advertising, this time Three’s efforts, posing a pretty simple question; why do the telcos find it so easy to put misleading adverts into the world?

The latest ruling was surrounding Three’s ‘Go Roam’ claim, which states users are able to ‘Feel at Home’ by using their full data allowance without any extra costs in 71 countries. An investigation from the ASA found postpaid users were limited to 13GB and postpaid to 12GB, before costs were applied. There is text hidden away somewhere on the Three website pointing towards a fair use clause, though the ASA does not believe this is sufficient and Three has been misleading customers.

Three’s response to the claims was relatively simple. Firstly, most of it customers only use 0.75GB per month in a ‘Go Roam’ destination, therefore 12GB was excessive. Secondly, that the claim had been used since 2014 and was strongly associated with their brand, which supposedly makes it alright. It does appear some customers were using it for business purposes, making several trips abroad per month, while the offer had originally been intended for holidays.

This is a perfectly respectable defence from Three, but without informing the customer of these conditions, it doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Unfortunately this is becoming a common trend. Service providers seem to think they can do what they like before pointing to some obscure reference on websites, incredibly small print or a statement made to an irrelevant number of people at a niche event. While Three might have been caught out in this instance, it is not alone.

BT had a complaint upheld regarding its claims on wifi speeds in April. Sky was caught misleading customers in March regarding a price promotion. Vodafone was caught out earlier this month and in September for misleading claims in adverts featuring Martin Freeman. There are other examples, plus the pending investigations with the ASA and also dozens of examples over the last few months of ‘informally resolved’ incidents. Vodafone has ‘informally resolved’ 12 of these complaints so far in 2018, TalkTalk seven and O2 five. Some of these will be down to honest mistakes, but the complaints seem to becoming more common.

Of course the other factor which needs to be taken into account is the ‘up to’ metric which plagued telcos advertisements for years, misleading customers over speeds which can be achieved. Any normal person would have told any of the telco’s marketing team this is not a fair or honest way to communicate with the consumer, but it become commonplace. It seems the telcos are harbouring different standards when it comes to honesty than the rest of us.

UK broadband subscribers typically get half of the advertised speed – Which

Consumer advocacy group Which mined data from its broadband speed checker app to compare what is advertised with what people actually get.

The overall finding was that, on average, the 235,000 users of the app pay for broadband services that claim to offer speeds ‘up to’ 38 Mbps, but only get 19 Mbps. Which seems to have timed the announcement to coincide with new advertising standards that will come into effect next week, apparently prohibiting the use of the slipper phrase ‘up to’ when plugging broadband services in the UK.

“This change in the rules is good news for customers who have been continuously been let down by unrealistic adverts and broadband speeds that won’t ever live up to expectations,” said Alex Neill of Which. “We know that speed and reliability of service really matter to customers and we will be keeping a close eye on providers to make sure they follow these new rules and finally deliver the service that people pay for.”

Not everyone is convinced by these findings, however. “Looking at Which’s results here I have to say I find them rather odd,” said Dan Howdle of broadband advice site Cable.co.uk. “Ofcom’s most recent testing shows, for example, that a 200Mbps connection (offered exclusively by Virgin Media in the UK) averaged 92% of the advertised speed at peak times.

“With such a large disparity between Ofcom’s results and those of Which I believe something could be amiss. One possible explanation might be if measurements were to be taken over wifi (rather than over a LAN cable) – this would have the potential to show the much slower averages measured by Which.

“Wifi, while capable of these speeds on paper, tends to be slowed down considerably (compared to a LAN cable) in your typical urban environment thanks to signal interference and architectural considerations. Whatever the cause, Which’s results are at odds with those of the regulator, as well as a multitude of other sources.”

Oh dear Which. There’s always the danger of confirmation bias when research is conducted by organisations with a commercial agenda. Which wants to sell subscriptions, switching services (of which Cable.co.uk seems to be one) want people to shop around through them. It does seem likely, however, that ‘up to’ marketing is misleading and hopefully its prohibition will empower consumers by itself.

Here’s Which’s table, followed by the Ofcom data referred to by Howdle.

Which bb speed table

Ofcom BB speed table

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.

UK ISPs told to stop using ‘up to’ broadband speed claims

The Advertising Standards Agency has placed a slither of logic into broadband advertising rules, partly tackling the issue of misleading representations with the use of ‘up to’ in adverts.

As of 23 May 2018, UK ISPs are guided (note) not to describe download speeds using the phrase ‘up to’, but instead describe ‘average’ speeds, only quoting numbers which can be achieved by 50% of customers during peak hours. The hope is customers will have a more accurate representation of the actual services they will be purchasing from ISPs, though we imagine it won’t be long until the slippery marketers at the ISPs think of another way to screw the customer.

“There are a lot of factors that affect the broadband speed a customer is going to get in their own home – from technology to geography, to how a household uses broadband,” said Shahriar Coupal, Director of the Committees of Advertising Practice.

“While we know these factors mean some people will get significantly slower speeds than others, when it comes to broadband ads, our new standards will give consumers a better understanding of the broadband speeds offered by different providers when deciding to switch providers.”

Right now, ISPs can claim customers will experience ‘up to’ speeds, should it be able to demonstrate 10% of customers actually can. Many have criticised the practise as misleading, as 10% is not an accurate representation of an ISPs performance. And those people complaining should feel completely justified.

While this is a positive move from the ASA, you have to question why the advertisers need a six month window to get used to the rules. If the government changed the speed limit on the motorway tomorrow, we would still have to abide by the rules from tomorrow.

Alongside the rule change, the ASA has also released some research into how the term ‘fibre’ can be used in advertising. There aren’t any rulings to report just yet, but the ASA has some interesting snippets to report from the initial research.

  • The consumer thinks fibre is a generic buzzword to describe speeds within advertising
  • Fibre is not considered to be a differentiating factor when making a buying decision
  • Even after educating the consumer on what fibre actually is, they probably still won’t care

The purpose of the research was to identify whether those slippery marketers were being dodgy once again. It has been noticed that fibre is a term used in advertising to describe both full-fibre and part-fibre connections. Little has been done to distinguish between the two, or even let the consumer know what the difference is, but they don’t seem to care anyway.

This should not be viewed as a green-light for ISPs to continue the trend of misleading truths however. ISPs generally do not need any encouragement to exaggerate, and we wonder whether it is sensible for the ASA to essentially say it is not bothered.

As it stands, ISPs can only say it is a fibre service if there is fibre in the service. This should be obvious, but better state it just in case there are some ‘creative’ marketers out there getting some funny ideas. Advertising speeds should be relative to the technology on offer. Finally, ISPs are not allowed to say services are the most technologically advanced on the market if it is only part-fibre.

This is certainly a positive step forward for the consumer, but there is still work to be done. We appreciate performance will vary for customers, therefore there is a need for a broad brush in TV advertising, but considering the targeted nature of online advertising, we would like to see much more accurate and regionalised statistics.

The ISPs still have six months to rinse the ‘up to’ phrase, and then we’ll see what other nuances the slippery marketers can come up with to mislead the consumer. It should be noted, however, that this is merely guidance and there don’t seem to be any explicit sanctions in place should ISPs ignore the recommendations.