ASA bursts BT's bubble on WiFi everywhere, customer confidence takes a hit

via Flickr ©  MissMessie (CC BY-SA 2.0)

via Flickr © MissMessie (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • BT failed to substantiate 'WiFi in every room' claim, watchdog says
  • Also rules O2 unclear on phone cost comparisons
  • Telcos should take care not to wash away consumer trust

BT has made much of its 'WiFi in every room' pledge over the past year or so, but on Wednesday found itself on the wrong end of an Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruling over the way it has publicised the offer.

The upshot of the ruling: BT might well be able to provide WiFi in every room of your house, but it can't prove it, so the offending ads will have to go.

The sanction is unlikely to trouble BT, since it refers to TV and press adverts from January last year that showed users surfing the net around their homes, including the bathroom. The ASA intervened following complaints from Virgin Media, Vodafone and 14 members of the public.

The operator's telco rivals questioned whether BT could substantiate its claims and the ASA ruled that, despite extensive testing, including the use of a test house and 1,000 real homes, that it couldn't. BT apparently failed to provide data on the devices tested and speeds realised, amongst other things.

"We told British Telecommunications plc not to claim that they guaranteed Wi-Fi in every room unless they held adequate evidence to support the claims," the ASA said. "We also told them not to use visuals that suggested the Wi-Fi discs did not need to be plugged into a socket." (Staggeringly, three individuals complained that BT had not made it clear that its WiFi extender nodes, or discs, were not battery powered.)

It's not much of a wrist-slap, and rightly so, given that this is a case of lacking data rather than a deliberately misleading ad. But it still washes yet more customer trust in telcos down the plughole.

And that's a problem for the whole industry.

It's only a matter of weeks since BT and complainant Virgin Media had a public spat over broadband speeds on a Bristol billboard. Telcos need to be more careful with what they claim they can offer and minimise the small print, because consumers have had enough of encountering advertising and instantly assuming it's too good to be true. In many cases they are right. In the case of BT's WiFi in every room pledge, maybe not, but lack of attention to detail has let the telco down.

The problem extends beyond the fixed broadband space.

The ASA this week also upheld telco complaints against the O2 refresh campaign, in which the mobile operator hit out at rivals for overcharging customers for devices. The ads, from last summer, misled consumers by not making clear, like-for-like comparisons, the ASA ruled, while the overpayment costs calculated by O2 were deemed inaccurate.

Like in the BT case, it was a "don't do it again," response from the ASA, which acted at the request of Virgin Media and 3 UK.

Playing it fast and loose with the numbers is probably the quickest route to incurring customer outrage and, well, it's just plain unfair.

Telcos need to take heed: if they want to build a customer relationship that lasts longer than a soap bubble, they need to choose their words – and their ads – more carefully.

A BT spokesperson said,  "The ASA wants us to explain more clearly that we’ll also send customers £20 if they’re still not happy and we’ve changed our ads to make that more clear.”


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