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Ad Watchdog slaps AOL

And questions suspect mobile radiation device

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This month it's AOL's turn to be told off by the Advertising Standards Authority. In a recent national press ad, it went with its usual Free! Free! Free! approach (even though it never is for long).

It read: "Free reasons to try AOL. FREE 99 hour trial. FREE Internet call charges. FREE helpline. Want some more reasons to try us? How about, we're the world's No.1 Internet Service Provider with over 30 million members? Or that we've got... etc etc".

And it ends: "And the best reason of all? It's still the only genuinely free trial around."

The ASA decided that most readers would infer that AOL was the only ISP that offered free subscription and Internet call charges. Which it doesn't because while competitor Freeserve doesn't offer a free helpline number, that is not an integral part of a free deal, it decided. Thus the ad was misleading [Apologies to readers for an earlier error where we suggested AOL was charging for the helpline].

Who complained to the ASA in the first place? Why, Freeserve of course.

This cat-and-mouse game with advertising is getting a little tiresome. You can almost guarantee that every month there will be one ISP and one mobile company being found guilty of misleading advertising.

NTL is the worst offender (10 times in the last 12 months) - to the extent where the ASA is considering refering it to the Office of Fair Trading, but Freeserve and AOL have also had a fair share of complaints upheld against them.

The mobile company this time is Orange - found guilty of posting false information about Virgin Mobile's tariff in order to make its tariffs look better. The complainant was, of course, Virgin Mobile.

The number and frequency of such ad infringements is beginning to undermine the ASA's authority. It cannot impose fines or start court proceedings, it can only slap on the wrist and refer companies to the OFT. Perhaps it's time the ASA made an example of someone.

The most flagrant abuse this month comes from GUS Home Shopping which advertised a radiation shield for mobile phones. Apparently: "This innovative ceramic shield is designed to absorb up to 70 per cent of all electromagnetic waves. When fitted, the device works permanently in all conditions to protect you from the majority of the non-ionising radiations generated."

Complaints revolved around the completely unsubstantiated claims of 70 per cent absorbtion.

In its defence, GUS sent loads of info about the product which included thermal images of human heads and torsos, a copy of a US patent and a computer simulation of the magnetic field from a mobile telephone antenna with and without the device attached. It also said it had sent the ad text to the ASA for approval before publication.

The ASA isn't easily fooled however and felt the need to point out that GUS had submitted exactly the same "evidence" for a different product under a different name. No only that but it was deemed "inadequate" by dint of the fact it "contained no methodology or statistical analysis for the tests".

GUS had been had and the ASA ordered immediate withdrawal of the offending ad. Tut tut. ®

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