ICSTIS investigates the Crazy Frog ringtone campaign, the ASA seeks assurances on subscription service ad transparency and mobile operators move on more self-regulation.
Increased scrutiny of Crazy Frog and mobile content providers
Crazy Frog called into question by ICSTIS
As we reported back in April, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) scrutinised the marketing materials produced by Jamster relating to the Crazy Frog ringtones. The investigation was prompted by the numerous public complaints to the ASA that Jamster's advertisements did not make it sufficiently clear that by sending a text to numbers advertised, subscription services costing £3 a week would be provided rather than a single ringtone. The ASA upheld the complaints and made it clear that information in marketing materials relating to such services must be clear, consistent and not misleading. This is particularly important when subscription services are offered on the back of ringtone purchases as such offers are particularly attractive to children.
The Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services (ICSTIS), the industry-funded regulatory body for all premium rate charged telecommunications services, is now also investigating the content and promotion of the Crazy Frog subscription services. They will be considering whether the public are aware they are signing up for a chargeable subscription service at the time they request the ringtones and if they are sufficiently aware of how much they will be paying and how often. ICSTIS have also indicated that they will be investigating whether the Crazy Frog services are inappropriately aimed at children. There have been calls for ICTSIS to be more proactive in seeking out offending content providers rather than just investigating on a case-by-case basis when complaints from the public have been received. Were such an approach to be taken, this may act as more of a deterrent for the industry particularly as the Department of Trade and Industry has indicated that the fines incurred for breaching rules on the selling of premium rate phone services are set to rise from £100,000 to up to £250,000.
ASA warning to the mobile industry
The volume of public complaints regarding subscription services advertising has prompted the ASA to issue a warning to the mobile content industry. The Committee of Advertising Practice has issued a formal letter to all mobile content companies appealing for written assurance that any marketing materials produced relating to subscription services are as transparent as possible. It is required that the body of the advertising as well as any small print makes it clear that a subscription service is being advertised and that clear information regarding applicable monthly charges is given. This is a request that the mobile industry should take note of to ensure that the sector does not suffer any further bad press and controversy relating to subscription services. It certainly seems as though the actions of a few are starting to affect the way the public view the reputation of mobile content providers.
Mobile industry guidelines attempt to improve public confidence
The mobile operators have recognised the bad reputation the industry is developing for subscription services and are increasingly refusing to deal with content companies who flaunt the rules. Content companies wishing to do business with the major UK operators now need to be familiar with the UK code of practice for the self-regulation of new forms of mobile content. This code of practice was launched by Orange, O2, T-Mobile, Virgin Mobile, Vodafone, Hutchison 3G and the Mobile Entertainment Forum.
The code covers recently developed forms of content including, visual content, online gambling, mobile gaming and chat rooms etc (voice and text services continue to be regulated by ICSTIS). Some of the issues covered by this code include the fact that commercial content can now be classified so users are aware what content is unsuitable for customers under the age of 18 (and mobile operators will place commercial chat rooms behind access controls unless they are moderated chat rooms) and mobile operators will offer parents the opportunity to apply a filter to internet access services available to their children's phones so that content equivalent to that with an "18" rating is filtered and access is restricted.
The mobile operators have recently taken things one step further to protect consumers and demand transparency for subscription services and they have now created a set of rules regulating premium rate subscription services and their associated marketing campaigns. ICSTIS have supported the introduction of these additional rules as they are an extension of the regulations already contained within the applicable ICSTIS Code of Practice. Issues addressed within the new rules include:
- appropriate font sizes for use in marketing materials;
- prominent messages relating to service prices and billing frequencies to be displayed in all forms of advertising (which for TV ads must be a static and prominent message displayed for the full duration of the ad and accompanied by a voiceover message);
- unsubscribe information to be provided with marketing communications (including WAP Push communications);
- the display of terms and conditions applicable to subscription services on websites; and
- text messages that should be sent to consumers once they have signed up for a service (such as to confirm the type of service they have just requested).
To avoid more Crazy Frog – type advertisements being introduced by providers, the mobile operators have chosen to declare that scrolling price banners in TV ads and the use of small fonts should be forbidden. Another change that content providers must also be aware of is that as well as providing customers with unsubscribe information at the end of each marketing communication, the rules require them to also send customers a reminder either every month or every time £20 is spent, reiterating how they can unsubscribe from the subscription service the have requested. Compliance with these rules means additional administration and costs for mobile content providers but many argue that this certainly required if the current controversy surrounding mobile content and related advertising is to be alleviated. It is also another attempt by the industry to address relevant issues through self-regulation before imposed legislation is seen as the only answer.