BT censured over 'free' calls campaign

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BT has been slapped on the wrist by the Advertising Standards Agency over a misleading series of advertisements that offered consumers "free evening and weekend calls for a year".

The ruling followed a complaint by TalkTalk, the telecoms arm of Carphone Warehouse, and represents revenge for BT's rival, which was admonished last year over its "free broadband forever" slogan, which regulators deemed misleading.

TalkTalk argued that BT's national press campaign offering customers "free evening and weekend calls for a year" was extended numerous times, meaning the term "free" was misleading as the cost of the calls was included in the price of the relevant package.

The ASA has ruled in previous cases that service providers can only use the term "free" for a reasonable time to prevent permanently inclusive elements of specific packages being used to mislead customers.

The ASA has given BT a warning, but has not fined the operator.

BT contested the ruling, arguing that no consumer harm had been caused as a result of the advertising, and that it had extended the offer to meet high demand. "The ruling is surprising and disappointing, especially as we've had no customer complaints and this is an excellent offer for customers," a BT spokesman said, noting that the decision to censure BT was not made unanimously.

The warning will prove a bitter pill for BT to swallow, coming only a week since the ASA rejected its own complaint against Sky over the pay-television company's own free evening and weekend calls promotion.

In that case, BT had argued that the offer had been previously included in the Sky Talk package, so should not have been advertised as free. However, the ASA ruled that the free calls represented a new element of Sky's See Speak Surf package and could therefore be regarded as free.