The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in its Adjudication against British Sky Broadcasting Ltd t/a Sky (10 June 2009) cleared Sky of any breaches of advertising rules relating to substantiation, truthfulness and comparisons with identified competitors, despite Sky omitting, in error, costs relevant to the savings it was promoting.
Sky’s advertisement stated “Unbeatable broadband for Sky TV customers ... Unbelievable savings. Add our free evening and weekend calls to UK* landlines package and you could save up to £200 a year compared to BT and Virgin Media^.”
The advertisement linked to a footnote that stated “^Savings claims calculated over a 12 month period and apply to standard prices for existing Sky TV customers taking Sky Broadband Max (£10 a month) and Sky Talk Freetime (£0 a month) compared to: ... Virgin Media Size XL Broadband (£20 a month) and Size L phone (£3.45 a month). Virgin Media XL Broadband includes PC Guard Total, up to 15 email addresses & other free extras. Virgin Media offers may apply. See virginmedia.com for details. Savings claims assume Sky customers have an active BT compatible line ...” Text at the bottom of the advertisement stated “Sky TV customers visit sky.com/broadband or call 08442... Further text below stated “Interested in joining Sky? Go online or call now...”
Virgin Media challenged whether the claim “... you could save up to £200 a year compared to ... Virgin Media” was misleading and could be substantiated. It considered the comparison was unfair as Sky had not included the costs of subscribing to Sky TV in the savings calculations. Virgin Media added that, even if these costs were excluded, the maximum saving against Virgin Media was £161 and not up to £200 as claimed.
Sky stated that the purpose of the advertisement was not to acquire Sky TV customers but rather to acquire broadband customers, and argued that the layout and text in the advertisement made that clear. Sky said that the generic reference “Interested in joining Sky?” was much less prominent than the headline claim “Unbeatable broadband for Sky TV customers” and also less prominent and direct than the call to action for existing Sky TV customers: “Sky TV customers visit ...”. Sky said that the footnote made clear that the savings claim applied only to existing Sky TV customers.
Finally, Sky stated that, according to a comparative table showing the cost to Sky and Virgin Media customers for monthly broadband, the price of the calls package, line rental and any installation costs, Sky customers could enjoy a saving of £203.40.
With regard to the missing costs in the savings calculations, Sky said the cost for line rental and Virgin Media’s set-up costs were ordinarily included in the footnote in advertisements of this type but had been mistakenly omitted on this occasion, which had contributed to Virgin’s understanding that the maximum saving could only ever have been £161.
The ASA investigated the advertisement under CAP Code clauses 3.1 (Substantiation), 7.1 (Truthfulness) and 18.1, 18.2 and 18.3 (Comparisons with identified competitors) but did not find it in breach. The ASA believed that the footnote made clear that the claim referred to savings that existing Sky TV customers could make if they subscribed to the advertised Sky broadband package. It also said that the smaller text towards the bottom of the page was clearly addressed to Sky TV customers and stated “Sky TV customers visit ...”. The ASA said that most readers would regard the call to join Sky which featured at the very bottom of the advertisement and in even smaller text as a secondary message and understand that the advertisement targeted existing Sky TV subscribers.
The ASA could not argue with the figures provided by Sky nor did it believe could the general public. The adjudication not only demonstrates the importance of robust evidence in comparative campaigns but also the usefulness of applying the “primary” and “secondary message” approach to advertising. As long as the secondary message is subservient in text size and position to the primary and as long as the target of the advertisement is clearly addressed and the claims honest, an advertiser can rightly look to acquire more customers than the central purpose of the selling message suggests.