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SA hack retails his MS ad complaint

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Exclusive Microsoft South Africa last week pulled an ad, following a ruling that its claims could not be substantiated by the Advertising Standards Authority. Here Richard Clarke, a South African freelance journalist, explains why he made the complaint which set the ASA ball rolling.

Microsoft ran an ad in a South African IT magazine called Brainstorm last November which misled the unsuspecting reader into thinking that the hacker is going to become extinct just like the dodo, woolly mammoth and the sabre-tooth tiger.

There were pictures of all four of these creatures with the text below that read: "Not everybody benefits from our secure software."

The small print at the bottom of the page read: "Microsoft software is carefully designed to keep your company's valuable information in, and unauthorized people and viruses out. Which means that your data couldn't really be safer, even if you kept it in a safe. Which is great news for the survival of your company. But tragic news for hackers."

Yet Microsoft systems, servers and email are littered with vulnerabilities and there is a constant stream of viruses which hit their systems.

One of the avenues open to me as a concerned consumer was to complain to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) here in South Africa. My complaint hinged on the twin issues of misleading the reader and having to substantiate the claims made in the ad.

The complaint was lodged on the 17 December 2002 and certain procedures were followed with Microsoft being given time to respond to my allegations.

The ad campaign had been planned for flighting in some of financial publications such as Business Day that target business decision makers.

One of my major concerns was the fact that many business decision makers read the magazine and would be wowed by the rhetoric. In fact there would have been many boardrooms and executive meetings where this ad would have been quoted without any substantiation added to the conversation.

The Advertising Standards Authority ruled in favour of my complaint on 17 February 2003.

In their ruling the ASA highlighted the fact that documentation submitted by Microsoft was not "evaluated by a person/entity, which is independent, credible, and an expert in the particular field to which the claims relate".

"The directorate notes that the documentary evidence submitted is internal documentation, which the respondents (Microsoft) did not have evaluated by an independent entity. The secure software claims are therefore ex facie unsubstantiated."

I feel that Microsoft should then have been forced to retract the spurious statements made in the ad in a media that targets the same readers that their original ad was aimed at. This was outside the ASA framework and I had to settle for the pulling of the ad. ®

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