Aussies telcos given yellow card for foul-play in ‘unlimited’ advertising

UK consumers might find some comfort that lying to misleading the masses isn’t a speciality of telcos here; everyone around the world is up to no good.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has told telcos to keep a better handle on advertising claims, demanding more honesty. Transparency and accuracy might seem like strange concepts to telecommunications companies, who have made somewhat of a speciality of applying flexibility to the definition of certain terms, but the regulator is hitting back.

“Telecommunications companies should be wary of using absolute claims like ‘unlimited’ where that does not give a true picture to consumers of what is being offered,” said ACCC Chairperson Rod Sims.

“We have taken a range of actions against telecommunication companies for misleading consumers. It is about time they showed more respect for their customers and the Australian Consumer Law. With much higher penalties now available for breaches of consumer law, I hope they will take their obligations more seriously. From now on consumer law penalties will seriously affect their bottom line, and we will not hesitate to seek the highest possible penalties.”

The issue here is focused on the ‘unlimited’ claims put forward by telcos when promoting mobile data plans. Optus, Vodafone and Telstra are the trio under the microscope of the ACCC, alongside private litigation brought by Optus against Telstra in the Federal Court. The result of the investigation, which took place between March and June, is that while the trio of white liars did include disclaimers, these were not sufficiently prominent or clear enough to explain to consumers the existence and impacts of the limitations. In short, consumers were not told about the throttling which would take place after data limits had been reached.

While the Aussies might be the centre of criticism right now, few nationalities are innocent. The UK has consistently mislead the consumer with the dreaded ‘up-to’ metric, and while this has been addressed by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) there are some, including Telecoms.com, who do not believe it has gone far enough. In years gone by, telcos could make speed claims in advertisements if they could prove 10% of customers could experience the promise. While this has been raised to 50% during peak hours, there have been calls this percentage should be higher.

In another example, Vodafone UK had one of its broadband adverts bands after the ASA deemed that there was a disconnect between the buffering scenario in the advert and how it related to the refund offer or service guarantee. The ‘ultimate speed guarantee’ advert featured Martin Freeman as a gamer experiencing connectivity issues at a critical point during the game, with BT making the initial complaint.

It is certainly promising to see a watchdog taking action against the telcos, perhaps we should all just ignore the advertising for the moment. We’re struggling to think of a telco which has earned the right to be trusted after years of misleading promises, inaccurate promises or childish moaning. Trust is hard earned and easily lost, and the telco industry is running on empty.