Summary of Council decision:
Two issues were investigated, both of which were Not upheld.
A TV ad, for Vodafone’s indoor coverage, seen in August 2017 featured the actor Martin Freeman in a robbery scenario set in an underground car park. A woman surreptitiously suggested calling the police, to which Martin Freeman replied “We’ll never get reception down here”. He then looked confused as the police arrived and she said, “I’m on Vodafone”. A close up of the phone was shown, showing full signal and he said, “Four bars?”. The voice-over at the end stated, “Outstanding indoor coverage on our most reliable network ever”.
EE and 16 other complainants challenged whether the ad:
1. misleadingly implied that only Vodafone customers could make calls to the emergency services in areas where there was no mobile network signal; and
2. was harmful and likely to cause fear and distress amongst the public on that basis.
1. Vodafone Ltd stated that the ad was deliberately trying to be humorous and was clearly fantastical in its approach. They considered viewers would understand that they could rely on Vodafone’s indoor network coverage even in unexpected situations. They did not believe that the ad misleadingly exaggerated Vodafone’s network capabilities.
They operated 2G, 3G and 4G in different frequencies to optimise coverage and capacity. They stated that where they had installed 4G, they had a stronger signal on the ground, facilitating a better indoor penetration. They believed the quality of their service had been demonstrated in independent testing.
They also acknowledged and supported Ofcom’s “999 / emergency roaming service”, which was the service implemented by all four mobile network operators (EE, Vodafone, Three, O2) and which allowed consumers to ‘roam’ onto another mobile network to make emergency calls if their ‘home network’ had no coverage.
Clearcast considered the lines “I’m on Vodafone” and “Four bars?” highlighted Vodafone’s indoor network coverage and the end line, “Outstanding indoor coverage on our most powerful network ever”, made clear the ad’s claims concerned Vodafone’s service and there were no comparisons being made with other providers.
2. Vodafone said the scenario humorously depicted that phone users could rely on Vodafone’s indoor coverage for emergency calls if they were in an underground car park or any area where a signal might struggle to reach the phone in question. They did not consider that the ad suggested to viewers that non-Vodafone customers would not be able to call 999 or implied that Vodafone was the only network to offer emergency call services. They considered they were simply showcasing their own network improvements in areas where signal was not usually expected.
They believed viewers would be sufficiently well-informed to know that making contact with the emergency services was possible with any network provider and would assume there was no indoor network coverage in the location depicted. They pointed out that Martin Freeman’s character humorously joked about that situation (without discrediting or denigrating any of Vodafone’s competitors) and the female character then offered reassurance that she had a Vodafone signal and was able to make the call based on the improvements Vodafone had been making to its network.
Clearcast considered the ad would not be taken too literally. They stated that the ad was filmic, stylised and over the top and, because it used an established comedic actor, Martin Freeman, it had a light-hearted tone. They pointed out that characters who were being chased by the police were typical ‘bad guys’, however, their looks and remarks were met by Freeman’s comedic comebacks and they did not consider the ad to be threatening. They believed the ad portrayed how some people might think they could use their mobile phones in an underground car park.
1. Not upheld
The ASA understood that, irrespective of a user’s phone contract provider’s network, emergency calls could be made if there was another network that the phone could connect to. Only if no networks had any signal would 999 calls not be feasible.
We considered that viewers would recognise an underground car park as an area where there was often no or very limited mobile signal, and therefore would understand that the ad was illustrating that Vodafone’s network covered a wider area than viewers might generally expect. However, we did not consider that viewers would also infer that that area was necessarily wider than that offered by other providers. We considered that was further emphasised by the claims “outstanding indoor coverage” and “four bars”, which would similarly not be understood to be comparative claims. We also considered that viewers would understand the scenario was not intended to be a serious or realistic portrayal of an emergency situation, but was intended to promote Vodafone’s view that it offered wide coverage.
In light of that, we did not consider that viewers would also infer that other mobile providers did not have access to areas often associated with more limited signal, and that only Vodafone customers could make calls to the emergency services in such areas.
We therefore concluded that the ad was not misleading.
On that point, we investigated the ad under BCAP Code (Edition 12) rules
Advertisements must not materially mislead or be likely to do so.
In setting or revising any such standards, Ofcom must have regard, in particular and to such extent as appears to them to be relevant to the securing of the standards objectives, to each of these matters:
a) the degree of harm or offence likely to be caused by the inclusion of any particular sort of material in programmes generally, or in programmes of a particular description;
b) the likely size and composition of a potential audience for programmes included in television and radio services generally, or in television and radio services of a particular description;
c) the likely expectation of the audience as to the nature of a programme's content and the extent to which the nature of the programme's content can be brought to the attention of potential members of the audience;
d) the likelihood of persons who are unaware of the nature of the programme's content being unintentionally exposed, by their own actions, to that content;
e) the desirability of securing that the content of services identifies when there is a change affecting the nature of a service that is being watched or listened to and, in particular, a change that is relevant to the application of the standards set under this section...".
(Misleading advertising), but did not find it in breach.
2. Not upheld
We considered viewers would recognise that the ad featured a comedic scenario, which would not be understood to be a serious or realistic portrayal of a dangerous or emergency situation. We considered viewers would understand that the ad was illustrating that Vodafone’s network covered a wider area than viewers might generally expect, and was using an exaggerated scenario featuring the police service to do so.
We did not consider that viewers would infer that the ad was primarily concerned with highlighting the importance of personal safety or understand that using Vodafone would ensure a level of personal safety which other mobile providers could not offer. We further considered the ad was unlikely to discourage consumers from attempting to make an emergency call in a situation where they had no signal but it was necessary to do so.
Whilst we considered that advertisers should take particular care with an ad’s tone and message when making reference to contacting the emergency services, we did not consider that, in this case, the ad’s message would cause distress amongst the public. We therefore concluded that the ad was not harmful.
On that point, we investigated the ad under BCAP Code (Edition 12) rules 1.2 1.2 Advertisements must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to the audience and to society. (Responsible advertising) and 4.10 4.10 Advertisements must not distress the audience without justifiable reason. Advertisements must not exploit the audience's fears or superstitions (Harm and offence), but did not find it in breach.
No further action necessary.