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ISPs get flimsy self-help leaflet on net speed ads

'Up to' and 'unlimited' claims lightly poked

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A so-called "Help Note" has been published this morning that offers guidance to advertisers when flogging broadband based on attractive speed claims.

However, the set of recommendations (12-page PDF/41KB) do not form a self-regulatory framework as some ISPs such as Virgin Media might have liked.

Instead the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said the guidelines should be regarded when its council is mulling over whether contentious "up to" speed claims in broadband ads comply with the relevant Advertising Code.

The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) jointly penned the Use of speed claims in broadband advertising document, which was published today.

"CAP and BCAP guidance is intended to help advertisers, agencies and media owners interpret the Codes but is not a substitute for them," it noted.

"This Help Note reflects CAP and BCAP's intended effect of the Codes but neither constitutes new rules nor binds the ASA Council in the event of a complaint about a marketing communication that follows it."

If an ISP's ad fails to take into account the recommendations detailed in the Help Note then the ASA will step in and ask the advertiser to justify why it chose to flout the guidelines. But this happens only after complaints have been received.

The telco would also be required to demonstrate that, despite ignoring the Help Note, it hadn't misled the consumer.

"Where advertisers make a numerical speed claim to be understood by consumers as maximum speed of their service, they should be able to demonstrate that the speed is achievable for at least 10 per cent of the relevant customer base," reads the document under a "Policy" heading.

"This applies to a claim wherever it appears in the marketing communication and if the claim is a part of the name of the service," it added, before offering the following caveat:

"Marketers may, however, choose to round their maximum speed claims down to a figure that is more convenient for marketing purposes."

The ASA, it said, would "judge each [complaint] submission on a case-by-case basis".

Broadband speed testing varies due to a variety of different factors, said the Help Note, therefore the guideline does not "require a specific method or approach to gathering and processing" such data.

Advertisers are expected to consider "relevant factors" that can affect broadband speeds, including signal attenuation and traffic/network management.

Virgin Media, which in July this year called on the ASA to "bring about a rapid change in the way broadband services are being advertised", still managed to describe the Help Note as a "massive win for consumers".

Some customers may disagree with that enthusiastic response given that these are guidelines rather than set-in-stone rules, but arguably "up to" and "unlimited" broadband speed claims in ads will – from April 2012 – become that bit harder to use in British marketing campaigns.

"The new rules are a big step in the right direction and the greater transparency will ensure people can make more informed choices," said Virgin Media exec Jon James.

"ISPs will no longer be able to hide behind generic terms or catch-all claims which they simply cannot deliver. However there needs to be vigilant scrutiny to ensure this is genuinely applied to all marketing and that the spirit behind this demand for change is upheld, not just the minimum necessary is done to be acceptable."

He added that VM only advertises speeds that at least 90 per cent of the ISP's customers receive.

“Ofcom has shone a torch on this issue by publishing regular speed reports which have, together with pressure from the government, consumer groups and thousands of customers across the country, helped push for this critical change," said James. ®

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