Virgin and Sky in spat over adverts

Virgin MediaKatie Collins/PA Wire/Press Association Images

The Advertising Standards Authority has had a busy week examining broadband and TV adverts. On the one hand, Virgin complained about Sky's advert for totally unlimited broadband, and on the other Sky complained about Virgin's advert for Free TiVo activation.

One complaint was upheld, and the other dismissed. So what's going on, and what does it mean for you?
It's always embarrassing when a spat gets personal and public in the corporate world, and competitors start slinging mud at one another. Neither tends to come out of it looking particularly attractive.

Sky advert

In this instance, Virgin Media challenged whether Sky's claim to offer 'totally unlimited broadband' in three adverts was misleading. Sky had faced a similar complaint in the past - when the complaint was upheld because Sky imposed some provider limitations on tethering, peer to peer file sharing and internet phone calls. However, since then it has done away with these limitations.

Virgin agreed that there weren't provider limitations, but said their complaint was based on their belief that a claim of "totally unlimited" went beyond this and implied there were no restrictions on the amount of data that a customer could download, apart from the headline speed of the service.

Virgin said Sky's service could not be described as "totally" unlimited because the amount of data that a consumer could download was limited by the actual speed of the service, which was affected by a number of factors inherent in a copper DSL delivered service, such as distance from the exchange.

Sky argued that given that the typical person uses 17 GB of data per month on average, the ability of a Sky customer to theoretically download 77 GB of data per day was not contrary to the average consumer's expectation of "totally unlimited" usage.

Positive ruling

The ASA sided with Sky, pointing out that "there were inherent limitations in any network, which would limit a consumer's actual broadband speed and therefore the amount of data that a consumer could download over a particular period of time." and "We did not consider that the average consumer would infer that "totally unlimited" meant the broadband service was free from the inherent limitations found in the network."

This ruling is good news for consumers. If it had been upheld, it would have battered the 'unlimited' broadband market, which would have left only those offering cable services like Virgin in the market. Less competition would then be likely to lead to less competitive pricing. So this decision was vital to keep the market challenging and vibrant.

Virgin Media ad

The second complaint was when Sky attacked Virgin Media for their claim to offer free TiVo . This time they were joined by nine members of the public, and among their concerns was the fact that they failed to make clear that an installation fee of £49.95 applied.

The ASA quoted the code that makes clear that an element of a package must not be described as "free" if it is included in the package price unless consumers are likely to regard it as an additional benefit because it had recently been added to the package without increasing its price. It said: "We considered the TiVo activation fee and TiVo monthly charge to be a bundled service (the TiVo bundle), because a consumer could not use the TiVo box without paying the activation fee."

It recognised that the adverts had featured a footnote stating "Standard installation fee ... required" and that references within the TV ad to "free TiVo box activation" were accompanied by on-screen text which stated "Installation fee applies". However, it said: "Whilst we acknowledged the ads made clear the existence of an installation fee, we were concerned that they did not state the charge."

Good news

Again, the ruling is good news. No-one could claim that the bundles and packages on offer from any of the media companies from Virgin to Sky are totally straightforward. There are variations in the technology, capability, freebies, charges, the calls and internet included and of course the TV channels. Even with the clearest adverts in the world, comparing them is not always simple, so we should welcome a clampdown on a confusing advert.

So mudslinging apart, we can take come comfort from these rulings - even if the tit for tat makes for an unsightly spectacle.
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