In June 2003, rival directory enquiries brands BT and 118 118 were at loggerheads in court over their advertising. Now, the same ads have landed the same competitors with the same fine. For the story
Topic: Misleading advertising
Who: ICSTIS, BT Directories and "The Number"
When: June 2003
In May 2003 we reported on a spat between BT Directories and "The Number", one of BT's new competitors following the liberalisation of the directory enquiry service sector. Both companies had issued, on consecutive days in the national press, advertisements headed "Public Notice". The headline of the BT ad was "Public Notice. BT directory enquiries is being updated. The old 192 number will be replaced by: 118500".
The headline of "The Number" equivalent and was "Public Notice, BT directory enquiries is being updated. The old 192 number is being replaced by a radical new directory enquiries concept. Being helpful. The new number is 118118".
BT's beef over the 118118 ad was that it infringed BT's copyright and it successfully applied to the Court for an injunction preventing further publication of the 118118 ad.
At the same time, both of the advertisements caught the eye of Oftel. The telecoms regulator was concerned about the BT "Public Notice" ad. It felt it might mislead consumers into thinking that BT continued to control directory enquiries, whereas with effect from August the entire market will be deregulated and the 192 number will be phased out.
Oftel referred the matter to the Advertising Standards Authority and the premium rate telephone line regulator ICSTIS ("the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Telephone Information Services").
Having deliberated, ICSTIS took the view that both advertisements broke its code by being misleading as to premium rate telephone information services.
The BT ad was capable of misleading consumers into thinking its service was the exclusive replacement for 192. "The Number" ad was misleading because it made its pricing information insufficiently prominent.
BT Directories and The Number were each fined £10,000.
The ASA also upheld the complaint in respect of the BT ad, but it has no power to levy fines.
Why this matters:
Of all the UK's current advertising regulators, ICSTIS has the sharpest teeth in terms of its ability to levy substantial fines at the end of a process which it is clearly capable of completing very quickly. Where premium rate lines are concerned, therefore, advertisers should be especially vigilant to ensure accuracy and clarity in their advertising.