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Top of the Worst – Annual Summary of UK ISP Advertising Complaints

Monday, December 29th, 2014 (2:52 am) - Score 2,496

Mirror.. mirror on the wall, which broadband ISP will suffer the most upheld advertising complaints of them all. As another year passes by, ISPreview.co.uk takes a quick look back to see how many complaints fixed line broadband providers garnered from the United Kingdom’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and whether tougher action is needed to stop abuse.

It’s little surprise to find that the UK’s aggressively competitive broadband market is also littered with a near constant flow of often funny, clever and ingenious marketing campaigns. Some reach us through the TV, others in magazines or newspapers and more than a few also find their way through our letter boxes from where their next journey usually ends in the nearest rubbish bin.

Lord Chris Smith, Chairman of the ASA, said:

Overall, UK advertising is creative, impactful and overwhelmingly responsible. By listening to consumers and business we’ve taken action to stop various advertising techniques that are misleading or simply unfair. By spending more time tackling problem ads in a swift and proactive manner we can help achieve our ambition: to make every UK ad a responsible ad.”

However, in the race to present themselves as the best and only choice for consumers, some ISPs occasionally cut corners and end up genuinely misleading people. One of the biggest examples of this surfaced in 2012 after the BBC’s Watchdog TV show gave a comically damning assessment of 25 banned adverts for Virgin Media (here).

But Virgin are by no means the only fixed broadband and phone operator to suffer a high level of complaints, with most of the major ISPs finding their way into the ASA’s bad books at one time or another, often repeatedly. Mobile operators can also suffer complaints, but they’re nothing like as frequent and thus we won’t be looking at them today.

ASA – A Failure to Act?

The situation has also fuelled criticism of the ASA for failing to act in a more robust fashion, although the authority frequently contests that ISPs don’t like having their adverts banned due to the bad publicity it can generate and the costs from a wasted investment. Last year the ASA did threaten to use their legal backstop powers against repeat offenders, although we’ve yet to see any examples of this being employed against ISPs.

On the flip side some contest that banned adverts, if targeted correctly, can sometimes form part of a clever viral marketing strategy that the ASA could unwittingly end up stoking. Similarly ISPs that complain against rival ISPs can sometimes gain a similar benefit by taking the moral high ground.

The ASA generally prefers to settle such disputes without resorting to tougher measures and in fairness many companies do make honest mistakes in their advertising, some of which can be very tricky to adjudicate; especially if it comes down to a complex aspect of service (e.g. the long-running battle over Virgin Media’s traffic management policy). Never the less it’s sometimes necessary to draw a line in the sand, yet in this case it remains unclear where that line exists.

As one of our readers, Gordon, put it last year: “It’s like stealing £100, (maybe) getting caught, (maybe) having to pay back, then being ordered to keep the loot and pay back £10“. Indeed by the time the ASA even bans an advert then it’s often already run its course, which makes any eventual damage a lot less costly for the ISP.

Top of the Worst

Generally speaking 2014 hasn’t been nearly as bad as previous years for banned adverts. Back in 2011/12 the situation was so dire that we almost seemed to be reporting on a new ban every week, but fast forward to this year and the frequency can perhaps be equated to something more akin to once per month.

Never the less it will come as little surprise to find that certain big ISPs continue to feature more prominently than others, with Virgin topping the table and TalkTalk following close behind.

Upheld Fixed Line ISP Advertising Complaints
1. Virgin Media – Score: 8 (Complaints: here, here, here, here, here, here [2] and here)
2. TalkTalk (inc. AOL) – Score: 5 (Complaints: here [2], here, here, here)
3. BT – Score: 2 (Complaints: here, here)
4. Sky Broadband – Score: 2 (Complaints: here and here)
5 (Tied). EE – Score: 1 (Complaints: here)
5 (Tied). Gigaclear – Score: 1 (Complaints: here)
5 (Tied). Fuel Broadband (formerly Primus Saver) – Score: 1 (Complaints: here)

Note: A score of 1 reflects a single ASA report, although each report may contain bans against several related adverts across different mediums for the same ISP (usually focusing on a shared package or issue). Some satellite, fixed wireless and mobile operator adverts were also banned during 2014, but only a few and this years focus is primarily on fixed lines.

According to the ASA’s last annual report, some 31,136 complaints were made about 18,580 adverts published in the United Kingdom (31% of the ASA’s caseload represented online ads) and a “record high” of 4,161 adverts needed to be changed or withdrawn. “On top of that, our focus on providing advertisers with the help to get their ads right saw CAP delivering training and advice on over 160,000 occasions, including recording 98,825 visits to its online advice resources,” said the ASA’s report.

But in the grander scheme of things broadband ISPs aren’t necessarily any worse than any of the other industries to fall foul of the rules and indeed 2014 has been one of the quietest years for advertising complaints against related providers. Virgin Media in particular had many times more complaints during the 2011/12 period and has shown a significant improvement this year, as have the others.

Equally we still see many avoidable mistakes, some of which keep cropping up (e.g. misuse of words and phrases like “fastest“, “most reliable” or “lowest priced” tend to be quite common) and that’s despite past rulings setting a benchmark for their use or even abuse.

Sadly, in some cases, flouting the rules still appears to have also become part of an accepted strategy (make the claim but assume the ad will be banned.. eventually) and Clearcast, which has helped to develop and test many of the related ads for UK commercial channels, must share some of the blame for approving promotions that are subsequently banned.

However the fall in misleading / banned ISP adverts suggests that, should this trend continue, there may be no need for tougher measures to combat repeat offenders. But if the problem were to get worse again then those calls for the most prolific offenders to face tougher measures, such as perhaps the payment of a fine or being forced to issue a retraction by the same form they initially broke ASA rules by, could get louder.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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12 Responses
  1. Chris Conder says:

    It could all be sorted if the ASA lot just had a few basic lessons in physics.
    They are trying to regulate something they know nowt about. The main issue is that the ISPs are marketing their product as ‘fibre broadband’ and it isn’t.
    Just because openreach have brought the fibre a bit further from the exchanges into cabinets does not make the uk phone network change to fibre. If it comes through a phone line then it is still copper broadband not fibre. Until the ASA realise this simple fact they are not doing the job they are paid to do, which is regulating and stopping misleading information getting out there.
    This in turn misleads the politicians, who watch tv and think the country is getting fibre. Its a vicious circle of hype, and a regulator should stop it.

    1. FibreFred says:

      Another one that conveniently fails to recognize the source of the “problem”

      Virgin Media started this problem that seems only to be a real problem for a few (very little in the way of complaints to ASA)

      This has been up in front of the ASA a few times and remains unchanged, sounds like the decision has been made. Sorry

    2. GNewton says:

      Chris, the laws of physics are different in the UK: Here we can have fibre comming through twisted-pir copper 🙂

    3. Ignitionnet says:

      I am not aware how the main problem with various false descriptions regarding pricing of bundles, individual products, their data caps, terms and conditions, etc, could be described as being that hybrid access networks are allowed to be described as ‘fibre optic’. It’d be great if you would explain this.

      Politicians don’t care how the broadband is being delivered. They care about the percentage of people who can receive above 24Mb or 30Mb depending on which target is in use.

      The overwhelming majority of people couldn’t care less whether their service is delivered via all copper, a hybrid coax-fibre solution, a hybrid copper-fibre solution or a full fibre optic solution, they care what it does for them and how much is costs.

      As a complainant on the original ASA case against Virgin Media over their use of the term ‘fibre optic’ in their advertising it seems unfair to suggest that the ASA know nowt. There are plenty of people worldwide who know nowt about what they are talking about sadly so picking them out is unfair.

      We did our best with the original complaint however the ASA presented their reasonings and they actually referenced physics. I am sure that had we had the benefit of your knowledge of physics and the broadband industry we would have, no question, won the ASA over.

    4. Ignitionnet says:

      Appreciate you probably won’t read this again as you rarely seem to actually enter into genuine discussion, you just give your opinion, which tends to be misinformed and disappear, but do check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKXshCNXHNg

      Made in 2008, aired in 2009. Infinity wasn’t released until 2010.

    5. FibreFred says:

      Thanks for that ignitionnet , there’s some good reuse value in that post , I will be sure to refer to it when this comes up again which should be sometime in the next day or two

    6. GNewton says:

      @Ignitionnet: So what? Two wrongs don’t make it right. Copper, be it coax or twisted-pair, is NOT fibre. ASA is a big fail here, well, BT is even a bigger loser 🙂

    7. FibreFred says:

      So what?

      The point being that yourself and others choose to ignore the root cause of the problem, why ? Easy a hatred of BT which then taints all of your arguments as its hard to take anything you say seriously knowing you have this deep hatred from the outset

    8. Ignitionnet says:

      @GNewton I was one of the original complainants per my earlier post. I didn’t say that I agreed with it but that’s how it is for the foreseeable.

      If you would be good enough to read the adjudication in question you’d note that the ASA are quite aware of the laws of physics.

      If you would be good enough to have a look through the links provided in the story you’d note that they don’t relate to describing a hybrid service as fibre optic.

      The OP is patronising, irrelevant and largely incorrect.

  2. Willow house says:

    Moneysavingexpert which earns commission referring customers had two complaints upheld about its adverts for broadband and is not in your chart


    1. Mark Jackson says:

      The above table only reflects complaints upheld directly against ISPs and their direct advertising, not third party organisations and their own spin on promotions.

  3. anthony says:

    I can feel another ASA ruling coming on, months before it will actually be ruled upon, with the BT “Best Ever Broadband Sale” which they are doing just now…until mid-January.

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