The Guardian has long claimed top dog status in the online “quality” newspapers stakes, so it came as no surprise that a “Britain’s No.1 quality newspaper website” headline in a telegraph.co.uk poster came before the Advertising Standards Authority. James Pond reports the perhaps surprising verdict.
When: April 2007
Law stated as at: 30 May 2007
The Advertising Standards Authority has upheld Telegraph.co.uk's claim to be "Britain's No.1 quality newspaper website", following controversy over whether or not the Telegraph had used a valid metric to measure website popularity. In particular Guardian.co.uk had been generally understood to be the most popular quality newspaper website in the UK up to this point, on the basis of unique user numbers.
Back in November when the Telegraph's campaign broke, both the Guardian Unlimited and the Times Online were widely reported as criticising the claim. Subsequently a single complaint was made to the ASA, although reports suggest this was from a member of the public and not from one of the Telegraph's competitors.
The actual advert was headlined "Britain's No.1 quality newspaper website", with text underneath stating "The new look telegraph.co.uk. The UK's most visited quality newspaper website". In small print it stated "Telegraph.co.uk was visited more times than any other newspaper website between Jul-Sep 06. SOURCE: Hitwise.co.uk, based on UK visits only".
In its judgment the ASA accepted that the "number one" claim was clearly identified as being based purely on being the "most visited" website, and that this was acceptable. The argument thus boiled down to whether the Telegraph could prove it was the most visited site with relevant data.
In its defence the Telegraph submitted data which counted the number of times a particular website was visited – importantly, the same person could visit that website multiple times and be counted as a visit each time. This visit metric data showed that for the two month period in question the Telegraph was the most popular quality newspaper website.
The problem was that using a unique user metric, which counts the number of unique individuals who visited a particular website in a given period, it appears that Guardian.co.uk has consistently been the most popular quality newspaper website for the past few years. Thus the question boiled down to which metric was a valid measure to base a number one claim on?
Bizarrely the Telegraph claimed that at the time there were no audited figures for the unique user metric available. The ASA rejected this, but noted that because in their view there was no agreed industry standard metric for measuring website statistics, and because the "most visited" form of words could be interpreted as including multiple visits, it was acceptable for the Telegraph to rely on the visit metric instead of the unique user metric to support their claim.
The actual complaint also queried whether the two month period in question was too short a period on which to base such a number one claim – again the ASA disagreed, on the basis that the small print of the advert made clear the period from which the data was taken, and therefore the claim was unlikely to mislead.
Why this matters:
Although it seems surprising that the ASA decided that the unique user metric was not the only industry standard metric for basing a number one claim on, this does illustrate the point that more than one metric can be used to justify a number one claim in certain circumstances. However this can lead to some odd results, where two or more competitors can validly claim to be the number one in their market at the same time, which presumably cannot be a good thing for consumers.
In addition the ASA seems to accept that there is no minimum length of period of data on which a company can base a number one claim on, so long as the period in question is clearly stated in the advert. Again this is perhaps slightly surprising, and could of course encourage advertisers to pick and choose very short periods of data which show their market performance in the best light. It remains to be seen whether this decision will herald a general increase in the number of such number one claims made as a result.