Background

Summary of Council decision:

Three issues were investigated, of which two were Upheld and one was Not upheld.

Ad description

Four ads for the BT Smart Hub, seen in July and August 2016:

a. A TV ad featured Ryan Reynolds, who stated “Introducing the new BT Smart Hub. With the UK’s most powerful wi-fi signal, it can reach some serious distance”. On-screen text at the beginning of the ad stated “UK’s most powerful Wi-Fi signal versus major broadband providers”. Ryan Reynolds then held on to the bottom of a helicopter as it took off. The characters in the helicopter asked him if he had wi-fi at 150 meters, then at 200 meters, and he stated that he had. A voice-over and on screen text then stated “BT Infinity, The UK’s most powerful wi-fi signal”.

b. A Youtube ad was identical to ad (a).

c. A web page on the BT website www.bt.com, described the BT Smart Hub and featured text stating “The UK’s most powerful wi-fi signal”. Further text stated “Our Hub gives you better wi-fi coverage … It can give you faster wi-fi connections in more rooms than the latest hubs from other major UK broadband providers”.

d. A radio ad stated “Hi, I’m Ryan Reynolds and I’m here to talk to you about the new BT Smart Hub with the UK’s most powerful wi-fi signal. I’d say outside it could reach the length of at least 12 London buses … BT Infinity, the UK’s most powerful wi-fi signal. Visit bt.com/smarthub to find out more. UK’s most powerful wi-fi signal versus major broadband providers. To verify go to bt.com/smarthub. Performance varies by hub position”.

Issue

The ASA received 61 complaints:

1. Thirty-five complainants, including Virgin Media Ltd (Virgin), Sky UK Ltd (Sky), and TalkTalk Telecom Ltd (TalkTalk), challenged whether the claim “UK’s most powerful wi-fi signal” in ads (a), (b), (c) and (d) were misleading and could be substantiated.

2. Three complainants, including Virgin and Sky, challenged whether the claim “Our Hub gives you better wi-fi coverage” in ad (c) was misleading and could be substantiated.

3. Thirty-five complainants, including Virgin and Sky, challenged whether the claims that BT Smart Hub’s wi-fi signal could reach the distances stated in ads (a), (b) and (d) were misleading and could be substantiated.

Response

1.& 2. British Telecommunications plc (BT) said that they undertook extensive testing of the hub before making the claims in their advertising. They said that they had designed their testing to take into account the relevance of testing network speeds and the requirement to test in real homes as well as a test house. They stated that the way radio frequencies transmit and respond to their environment was complex, and this had an effect on the process of designing a test to measure those speeds that could produce accurate, repeatable results.

They said that the claim “UK’s most powerful wi-fi signal” was qualified in on-screen text in the TV ad and in the body copy of the website, making clear that the BT Smart Hub was being compared against major broadband providers. BT believed that the prominence of the qualification was sufficient to clarify the claim immediately, and the comparison was not misleading. They referred to the verification document available on their website.

BT said that they appreciated the need to demonstrate that their evidence was obtained in a context that was representative of general consumer use. They had carried out tests on both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies using devices that they said were representative of those used by the public, undertaking normal user tasks. They measured data sent in both directions (upload and download) with the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), the protocol with which 90% of internet traffic is sent. They used a specialised programme to generate TCP internet traffic, and considered that any benefit measured using this protocol would be relevant to all online internet activity, including downloading files, browsing the web or watching content on a video on demand (VOD) service. BT did not test the signal when multiple devices were being used simultaneously, as they did not consider that this was relevant to claims about the power and reach of the wi-fi signal, and in any case they did not think it would impact on the ranking as it would serve to slow down the signal from all routers tested. They said that they did not test devices running different operating systems as the wi-fi speeds were dependent on the the wi-fi chip components, which would perform the same way regardless of the operating system. They had selected one high-tier (3x3 antenna configuration) and one mid-tier (1x1 antenna configuration) device, which they believed were representative of the variation in wi-fi technology. However, they contested the idea of an “average consumer home”, as all homes are different. They stated that the comparative power of a wi-fi signal was determined by the specifications of the router, and not the placement of furniture in a room, though the placement should be consistent in order to ensure that each test was fair, and they confirmed that this was the case in their lab tests. They said that the primary impact on wi-fi signal strength came from the number of walls through which the signal had to pass.

In order to demonstrate that the lab results were reflective of customer experience, they also tested the Smart Hub and the top two competitor hubs in ten real homes of differing construction types. They said that there would be no control for interference in such real-life environments, and furniture would not be placed in standard locations. In-house conditions were kept the same for each repetition of the test and interference from neighbouring properties was measured before each test in order to ensure that noise levels were roughly consistent throughout the tests. This was to ensure that no sudden increase in activity on a neighbouring network skewed the results. BT said they could not control for the effect of mobile phones that may have been in use nearby. The results showed the same trend as seen in the test house, which they believed demonstrated that the lab results were reflective of the results that would be seen in real homes.

BT said that the claims “UK’s most powerful wi-fi signal” and “Our hub gives you better wi-fi coverage” related only to the capabilities of the router, rather than to the overall broadband speed, which would incorporate the fixed-line network. They said that they had tested the wi-fi signal independently of the network, which they understood was acceptable, and their results showed that the BT Smart Hub had a faster wi-fi speed than the competitor hubs for both devices tested, at every point in the homes and for both wi-fi bands. They therefore maintained that the claims were not misleading.

Clearcast said that they had initially approved the script after receiving evidence that the BT Smart Hub contained superior technology. They noted that BT had compared against the other main broadband providers and that this needed to be clearly spelt out and clarified to consumers. They had also advised that the competitor comparison needed a verification website where consumers could view the results for themselves, as it was based on complicated technical data. They said that the test method followed was in line with work done by the IEEE802.11T working group in 2005. The locations and testing parameters were the same for all devices tested and the only variable was the router. They noted that the testing was repeated several times for each device in each location to give reliable comparable results.

3. BT stated that the Smart Hub could reach the distances claimed in ads (a) and (d) when travelling through one wall and connecting to a tablet. The submitted a full test report in support of this. They said that the specific scenarios depicted in the ads were intended to illustrate the type of distance the hub could reach in a humorous way, rather than to provide a literal description of the distances it would reach in all circumstances.

Clearcast said it was clear that the scenario with the actor and the helicopter was intended to demonstrate his distance from the router. They appreciated that this wasn’t a situation that people would replicate at home, but concluded that, in conjunction with the information they had received regarding the reach of the signal, the implied claim that consumers could receive an unobstructed signal at a distance of 200 m was acceptable.

Radiocentre had nothing to add to the advertiser’s response.

Assessment

1. & 2. Upheld

The ASA noted that all the ads stated “UK’s most powerful wi-fi signal” and focused on the distance that the signal could reach. We therefore considered that consumers would understand this as a claim that, out of all the wi-fi routers available on the market, the BT Smart Hub provided a stronger signal – that is, one that could reach a greater distance within users’ homes – than routers from any other broadband provider. We considered that the claim “Our Hub gives you better wi-fi coverage” in ad (c) would be understood as a more general claim when seen in isolation, but noted that it was seen in conjunction with the “UK’s most powerful wi-fi signal” claim and was likely to be understood, in that context, as having a similar meaning. We understood that, in both cases, the comparisons were intended to be against major providers, but considered that the headline claims were very broad and would be understood as whole-of-market comparisons.

Ads (a) and (b) included on-screen text stating “UK’s most powerful Wi-Fi signal versus major broadband providers”, while the radio ad (d) featured the same qualification and referred listeners to additional information available online, which we understood to be the test report linked to from ad (c). Ad (c) included a graphic comparing the reach of wi-fi signal from the BT Smart Hub against hubs from three major broadband providers, alongside text stating “It can give you faster wi-fi connections in more rooms than the other latest hubs from UK broadband providers”. It also featured a table comparing the specifications of the BT hub to three specific competitor hubs. The ad did not make clear that the “UK’s most powerful wi-fi signal” claim was based on a comparison against all major broadband providers. While the qualifications in each ad did outline the basis of the comparisons, we considered that they were insufficiently prominent to counter the overall impression that the comparison was against the whole market.

We understood that there was a legal power output limit for all wi-fi routers sold in the UK. However, the average consumer was likely to understand the claim “UK’s most powerful wi-fi signal” to relate to the ability of the signal to reach a greater distance within the home than that of other routers. In theory, a router containing more advanced technology could transmit a wi-fi signal with a greater reach than other routers, even if they were connected to a fixed-line network of the same speed. Therefore, we considered that it would be reasonable for substantiation relating only to claims about router output not to take fixed-line speeds into account. We considered that the claims “UK’s most powerful wi-fi signal” and “Our hub gives you better wi-fi coverage” related specifically to the abilities of the hub, and consumers would likely understand that they did not include broadband speed.

We examined the verification document and accompanying data and methodology description submitted by BT. The laboratory tested the TCP throughput of both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz wi-fi signals for the BT Smart Hub and seven competitor hubs from Virgin, Sky, PlusNet, TalkTalk and EE, at multiple points within two testing facilities representing the short, middle and edge of coverage ranges for the two different wi-fi frequencies. At the furthest point, there were four walls between the router and the test device. The devices used were a MacBook Pro laptop and a Samsung Galaxy S4 Smartphone, which were representative of both high-tier (3x3 in both bands) and mid-tier (1x1 in both bands) wi-fi devices. We had not seen anything to indicate that lower-specification devices would not also achieve higher speeds when connected to the BT Smart Hub, compared to other routers. We noted that BT had not tested the wi-fi signal when connected to multiple devices simultaneously. While we acknowledged that multiple device use could have an affect on the speed on some aspects of internet use, as we considered that the claim related only to the distance that the wi-fi signal could reach, we did not consider that it was essential for the testing to take this into account.

We noted that BT had repeated the tests extensively, resulting in a total of 46,080 data points per router, and the overall results indicated that the BT SmartHub had the fastest TCP throughput at every point where a connection was achieved, across both frequencies. We also noted that BT had used a dedicated programme to generate TCP internet activity that was relevant to a range of typical consumer activities using wi-fi, and had taken steps to control for directionality. Virgin and Sky were concerned that the tests had not been run with the routers connected to a broadband network, but with data traffic generated by a testing tool, which they said resulted in network speeds higher than those achievable by BT’s own broadband networks. However, we understood that this was done to avoid the variability of network speeds, which might be slower at peak times, thus affecting the data. Because consumers were likely to understand that the claim referred to the distance the wi-fi signal could reach, we considered that the speed of the fixed-line network was not relevant, and it followed that if a router had been shown to produce the signal with the greatest reach when connected to a given network (or data traffic generated to replicate activity on a network), then it would demonstrate a similar performance relative to other routers, in that respect, when connected to any other network, regardless of that network’s speed capabilities. Overall, we considered that the methodology of the tests was sufficiently robust to demonstrate that the BT router had the most powerful wi-fi signal within the context of the test houses.

We noted that BT had conducted further tests in ten real homes. The throughputs of the BT hub and the two top-performing competitor hubs from the laboratory tests were measured at three points in each home, and the tests were repeated three times at each location, resulting in 1440 data points per hub per house. We were provided with floorplans of the test properties, which varied in size, structure and construction materials, and we considered that they were representative of a range of UK homes. BT had measured the interference from neighbouring wi-fi networks prior to each test, ensuring airtime utilisation levels were between 4% and 8%. They said it was possible that there was also intermittent interference from non-wi-fi sources present. However, the data was consistent across the repeated tests, and they considered this indicated that the results had not been affected by variations in non-wi-fi interference levels. The claims related to the distance at which consumers could get a wi-fi signal, and not specific aspects of its performance such as upload or download speeds. We considered that this level of monitoring was sufficient to establish that the level of interference was consistent during each of the tests.

BT had not tested hubs from all the major broadband providers in the ‘real homes’ tests. However, because the tests performed in laboratory conditions were suitably robust, we considered that it was sufficient for BT to test only the three top-performing hubs in order to demonstrate that the same results could be achieved in a representative real home setting. We therefore considered the evidence was sufficient to demonstrate that the BT Smart Hub had the UK’s most powerful wi-fi signal compared to major broadband providers. However, it was not sufficient to substantiate the claim as it would be understood by consumers, as a comparison with the whole market.

In conclusion, consumers would understand the ads to mean that the BT Smart Hub provided a stronger signal – that is, one that could reach a greater distance within users’ homes – than routers from any other broadband provider. We acknowledged that the evidence substantiated that the Smart Hub’s signal reached a greater distance than routers from other major broadband providers. However, we did not consider the qualifications that the claims only related to a comparison to major broadband providers was sufficiently prominent, and BT had not provided evidence in relation to the whole market. For those reasons we concluded that the claims “UK’s most powerful wi-fi signal” and “Our hub gives you better wi-fi coverage” were misleading.

On this point, ads (a) and (d) breached BCAP Code rules  3.1 3.1 Advertisements must not materially mislead or be likely to do so.    3.2 3.2 Advertisements must not mislead consumers by omitting material information. They must not mislead by hiding material information or presenting it in an unclear, unintelligible, ambiguous or untimely manner.
Material information is information that consumers need in context to make informed decisions about whether or how to buy a product or service. Whether the omission or presentation of material information is likely to mislead consumers depends on the context, the medium and, if the medium of the advertisement is constrained by time or space, the measures that the advertiser takes to make that information available to consumers by other means.
 (Misleading advertising),  3.9 3.9 Broadcasters must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that the audience is likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation.  (Substantiation),  3.10 3.10 Advertisements must state significant limitations and qualifications. Qualifications may clarify but must not contradict the claims that they qualify.  (Qualification),  3.12 3.12 Advertisements must not mislead by exaggerating the capability or performance of a product or service.  (Exaggeration) and  3.33 3.33 Advertisements that include a comparison with an identifiable competitor must not mislead, or be likely to mislead, consumers about either the advertised product or service or the competing product or service.  (Comparisons with identifiable competitors). Ads (b) and (c) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules  3.1 3.1 Advertisements must not materially mislead or be likely to do so.    3.3 3.3 Marketing communications must not mislead the consumer by omitting material information. They must not mislead by hiding material information or presenting it in an unclear, unintelligible, ambiguous or untimely manner.
Material information is information that the consumer needs to make informed decisions in relation to a product. Whether the omission or presentation of material information is likely to mislead the consumer depends on the context, the medium and, if the medium of the marketing communication is constrained by time or space, the measures that the marketer takes to make that information available to the consumer by other means.
 (Misleading advertising),  3.7 3.7 Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation.  (Substantiation),  3.9 3.9 Broadcasters must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that the audience is likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation.  (Qualification),  3.1 3.1 Advertisements must not materially mislead or be likely to do so.   (Exaggeration) and  3.33 3.33 Advertisements that include a comparison with an identifiable competitor must not mislead, or be likely to mislead, consumers about either the advertised product or service or the competing product or service.  (Comparisons with identifiable competitors).

3. Not upheld

Ad (a) depicted a fantastical situation that did not reflect the way consumers were likely to use wi-fi. Nevertheless, we noted that the actor was specifically asked if he still had wi-fi signal at a distance of 200 meters. While we did not consider that viewers were likely to understand that a signal could be obtained in the exact circumstances shown in the ad (i.e. 200 meters directly above the router in a helicopter), they would understand that the router could transmit a signal over a distance of 200 meters. Similarly, while we understood that the “length of 12 London buses” stated in ad (d) was intended to illustrate the distance that the signal could reach in a humorous way, we considered that consumers would still understand that it could reach that distance. We understood that the maximum permissible length of a double-decker bus in the UK was 15 meters, and therefore the length of “12 London buses” could be up to 180 meters. That said, consumers were unlikely to need to connect to wi-fi at a distance of 180 to 200 meters from their router, whether or not there were any walls in the way. Therefore, we considered that the ads were likely to be understood simply as illustrating that the router could transmit a signal over a long distance, and it would be sufficient for BT to demonstrate that this was the case.

We assessed the test report provided by BT. We noted that it measured TCP throughput of a 2.4 GHz signal from a BT Smart Hub when connecting to a tablet up to a maximum distance of 500 meters on an outdoor test range. The router was located in a test house and the wi-fi had to pass through one wall, but the range was an open field free of obstacles or interference. The results showed a mean throughput of 40.2 Mbps at 200 meters, which was a usable wi-fi signal. The minimum throughput also showed that there was no record of the signal dropping at this distance. The device had been connected to a testing tool that generated network speeds faster than those that BT’s own broadband network was capable of. While we acknowledged that the speed that could be achieved at that distance when connected to a broadband network would be lower, given the relatively high speed achieved with the generated throughput, it was reasonable to conclude that the wi-fi would still be usable. We noted that Virgin were concerned that the outdoor testing range did not reflect conditions in which consumers would use wi-fi, chiefly because of the lack of interference. However, given the fact that the claim was likely to be understood as fantastical and illustrative in nature, we did not consider that it was necessary, in this instance, for BT’s testing to take into account all factors that would affect wi-fi range within users’ homes. We therefore considered that BT had substantiated that it was possible to obtain a wi-fi signal at 200 meters from the hub.

On this point, we investigated ads (a) and (d) under BCAP Code rules  3.1 3.1 Advertisements must not materially mislead or be likely to do so.    3.2 3.2 Advertisements must not mislead consumers by omitting material information. They must not mislead by hiding material information or presenting it in an unclear, unintelligible, ambiguous or untimely manner.
Material information is information that consumers need in context to make informed decisions about whether or how to buy a product or service. Whether the omission or presentation of material information is likely to mislead consumers depends on the context, the medium and, if the medium of the advertisement is constrained by time or space, the measures that the advertiser takes to make that information available to consumers by other means.
 (Misleading advertising),  3.9 3.9 Broadcasters must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that the audience is likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation.  (Substantiation) and  3.10 3.10 Advertisements must state significant limitations and qualifications. Qualifications may clarify but must not contradict the claims that they qualify.  (Qualification), but did not find them in breach. We investigated ad (b) under CAP Code rules  3.1 3.1 Advertisements must not materially mislead or be likely to do so.    3.3 3.3 Marketing communications must not mislead the consumer by omitting material information. They must not mislead by hiding material information or presenting it in an unclear, unintelligible, ambiguous or untimely manner.
Material information is information that the consumer needs to make informed decisions in relation to a product. Whether the omission or presentation of material information is likely to mislead the consumer depends on the context, the medium and, if the medium of the marketing communication is constrained by time or space, the measures that the marketer takes to make that information available to the consumer by other means.
 (Misleading advertising),  3.7 3.7 Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation.  (Substantiation) and  3.9 3.9 Broadcasters must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that the audience is likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation.  (Qualification), but did not find it in breach.

Action

Ads (a), (b), (c) and (d) must not appear again in the forms complained about. We told British Telecommunications plc to ensure that they made the basis of comparative claims clear in order to avoid giving a misleading impression to consumers.

BCAP Code

3.1     3.10     3.12     3.2     3.33     3.9    

CAP Code (Edition 12)

3.1     3.11     3.3     3.33     3.7     3.9    


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