The ad industry has until 12th August 2005 to get to grips with ‘new policy’ from the Advertising Standards Authority on use of the word ‘free’ to describe one element of a package, but why is the new approach only applicable to broadcast ads and what is the rationale for the change of tack anyway?
Who: The Advertising Standards Authority & UTV Talk
When: January 2005
Following "Complaint Upheld" findings in respect of broadcast ads for two mobile phone packages, the Advertising Standards Authority ("ASA") took the unprecedented step of issuing a separate note on a particular point arising.
The advertisers in question were UTV and Vodafone and the issue was the use of the word "free". By way of example, subscribers to the "UTV Talk" telephony package would pay a monthly rental of £10.50 and then receive free evening and weekend calls to landlines in the UK and Eire plus 10% and 5% discounts off other types of calls. Three of the six ads in the campaign ended with the caption "free evening and weekend calls".
The complaint was that it was wrong to describe as "free" an element that was included in the cost of the overall package.
No extra cost doesn't mean free
In its decision, the ASA acknowledged that there was no charge for evening and weekend calls within the UK and Eire over and above the £10.50 monthly rental. But the way the ASA saw it was that the evening and weekend calls were included in the package at no extra cost, not actually "free". Accordingly the ad was misleading and the complaint upheld.
In the second case, Vodafone were met with a similar complaint, this time relating to "free calls" between company mobiles. This was part of a package introduced to replace a previous similar package, the big difference being that the new package came with exactly the same price tag as the old one, despite the addition of free inter-mobile calls. On this basis, Vodafone argued that they should be entitled to use the term "free."
The telecoms grant also conducted a survey online in which it asked 900 business people and consumers which sentence they found easier to understand, "On the Vodafone perfect fit for business tariff, all calls between mobiles in the same company are free" or "on the Vodafone perfect fit for business tariff, all calls between mobiles in the same company are inclusive".
The result of the survey was that more respondents found the first sentence easier to understand than the second.
The difficulty with the survey was that neither of the sentences between which respondents were asked to choose featured in the advertisement in question, and again, because those who bought the product would still have to pay a monthly charge to the advertiser, the ASA felt that the internal calls should not be described as "free" but as "inclusive" instead.
In its accompanying "Note" on use of the word free, the ASA admits that it is taking a new approach.
It rams home its point by saying that this new approach applies even where, for example, an advertiser argues that a certain category of phone call is provided free over and above the inclusive minute allowance available within their package and even though the number of calls in that category is unlimited.
Generously, the ASA states that because this is a significant change in interpretation of the relevant code rules, broadcasters will have six months from 12th January 2005 in which to amend any advertisements affected.
Why this matters:
This is a worrying development. Coming quickly after the ASA took over the handling of complaints in respect of broadcast advertising, this is the first time that the ASA has flexed its muscles on a broadcast code interpretation issue and put down a marker.
We wonder whether it consulted with the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre before it came to this position.
Given the importance of the change of direction, one might have expected it to do so. One might also have expected there to be some attempt in the ASA "Note" to rationalise the change of tack. However one looks in vain for any explanation of the change of position or as to what exactly is the perceived ill that the change of direction is going to remedy.
Consistent with non broadcast code?
It is also unclear whether this interpretation is going to be applied in the non-broadcast arena, where the ASA of course also deals with code breach complaints. So far the answer seems to be "no". For instance, we note that at almost the very same time as the Vodafone and UTV cases were published, the ASA was refusing to uphold complaints in respect of car advertising offering "free insurance" as part of the package. In neither case did the ASA take the slightest exception to the use of the term "free" in this context even though the car certainly had to be paid for. What, we ask, is the difference between these cases and those in the broadcast arena which have given rise to this extraordinary change of direction? We think we should be told.