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ASA Bans Vodafone Ads for Misleading UK’s Best Network Claim

Wednesday, July 28th, 2021 (8:16 am) - Score 1,584
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A complaint by rival mobile operator EE (BT) has prompted the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to ban several of Vodafone’s adverts after they “misleadingly” claimed to be the “UK’s Best Network” or “UK’s best mobile data network” for 4G and 5G services (mobile broadband).

As we said last week (here), when Three UK had several of its adverts banned for making similarly bold claims (ironically after a complaint from Vodafone – bit of karma today), mobile operators that try to proclaim themselves as the best, most reliable, cheapest or fastest at something in ads tend to fall flat on their faces due to the difficulty of accurately substantiating such claims – particularly in the highly variable world of mobile connectivity.

In this case, EE’s complaints against Vodafone flow from two separate, albeit very similar, ASA reports (here and here). One reflects two adverts – a home page and newspaper promotion (i.e. “the UK’s best mobile data network” claim), which date all the way back to March 2020. Meanwhile, the other reflects a paid-for internet search ad from January 2021 (“The UK’s Best Network” claim).

The older “best mobile data network” claim was based on third-party testing data conducted by nPerf, but the ASA were “concerned that participants were self-selected” and, including other reasons, were generally not representative of the UK overall. It didn’t help that nPerf’s report contained only basic information about the testing methodology and that “greater detail was necessary for consumers to understand fully the comparison.”

The ASA thus banned those two adverts and told Vodafone to “ensure that they had adequate substantiation to support claims, including comparisons with identifiable competitors, in their marketing materials.” The watchdog also told them to ensure that, in future, consumers were able to verify the comparisons made in their advertising.

As for the more recent “UK’s Best Network” claim in an internet search advert, this one was a bit easier because Vodafone highlighted that it was actually meant to say “The UK’s Best Network as voted by readers of Trusted Reviews,” but due to an unspecified “technical error” the Trusted Reviews part was removed. However, the ASA also took the opportunity to examine the usefulness of the survey itself, and found it wanting.

ASA Statement

We understood that the award was based on a mobile poll of users of the Trusted Reviews site where, of 42,000 votes across six categories, 1,007 were for best network. Respondents were invited to choose from a list of seven providers, Vodafone, EE, O2, Virgin, Three, BT and giffgaff, the order of which was randomised each time a user clicked on the poll. Respondents had not been actively sought out to vote but had chosen to do so voluntarily.

We noted that the methodology required respondents to choose which of the seven providers they deemed to be the “Best Network Provider”. We considered that the poll question was very broad and that it was unclear what the criteria were for rating a particular provider as the “Best Network Provider”. We considered respondents were likely to have differing understandings of how well their network provider performed depending on their typical usage habits and requirements.

Furthermore, we considered respondents were unlikely to have insight into how their own network provider compared against the others on the list. Overall, we were concerned that the data showed only highly subjective preferences. It was not clear how responses could be compared in a meaningful way to come to a view that one network provider was the “best”. We considered the comparative nature of the claim required an objective component, and it was unclear to us how subjective preference alone would deliver such data.

Once again, the ASA decided that this advert should be banned and told Vodafone to “ensure they held adequate and objective evidence to support comparative claims; that the basis of any comparison was presented clearly; and that ads provided sufficient information to enable consumers to verify comparisons with identifiable competitors or signposted consumers to such information.”

Today’s case is of course only the latest in a string of tit-for-tat style examples, where mobile operators have complained about their rivals making “best” style claims. Back in April 2020 it was Three UK complaining about EE’s “UNBEATABLE.. No.1 Network” claims (here), then in February 2021 EE retaliated by getting several Three UK adverts banned for using the “Best Network for Data” claim (here).

Shortly after that both EE and Vodafone managed to get O2’s adverts pulled for making “the UK’s No.1 Network” claim (here) and then, last week, Vodafone succeeded in getting Three’s “UK’s fastest 5G network” and “real 5G” claims pulled for being similarly misleading (here).

As we said earlier, the high variability of mobile network coverage and performance makes it fundamentally difficult for any operator to make such broad claims. Meanwhile, by the time the ASA has actually taken any action, then such adverts have usually run their course.

Mobile operators seem happy to keep playing the same game, perhaps because the negative publicity over these ads doesn’t have much of a lasting impact or doesn’t outweigh the positive upside from running them. By contrast, the ASA remains somewhat of a toothless tiger.

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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.
Leave a Comment
5 Responses
  1. Ben says:

    It seems that the ASA simply administers a slap on the wrist, and the networks continue with their shenanigans. What about the customers who were mislead by the adverts? I think Vodafone should be compelled to release all customers from their minimum term who saw (or may have seen) the misleading adverts prior to signing up.

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      Without a way to validate that association, there can not be a viable course for enforcement.

  2. GNewton says:

    Does any company take the ASA serious these days? The very same ASA which heavily promoted false “fibre broadband” adverts!

    1. Buggerlugz says:

      Not whilst they allow BT to sell FTTC as fibre connections when they clearly are not.

    2. Lexx says:

      It’s quite hard sometimes to explain to people that what they have isn’t fiber (near fiber is what I usually call it)

      My bother was perfect example of this working at sky selling/support fiber broadband, he was brain washed into thinking sky actually was installing real fiber to customers homes after 20 minutes I actually managed to explain that its openreach (bt) that actually serves the lines and it is just phone cables (no real fiber at all) and speeds can be between 5 and 60mb depending how far away you are from the cab (and there is only one “ish” National broadband provider openreach and Virgin Media offering around 50% coverage )

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