In Nigeria, internet is the culture. Internet has given people the opportunity to enjoy the often ridiculous pop-up broadcasts on WhatsApp, the rib-cracking videos on Instagram, vanities of Snapchat and the whimsical banters on Twitter.
This must be the reason one of the many ads for Airtel’s Unlimited Data campaign is chronicled “Data is Life”.
The data-is-life advert vividly depicts a stone-aged homo sapiens becoming radiant at the glitters of civilisation, fluffiness of hedonistic lifestyle and photo-flashes of smartphones. This message is very true for 53 per cent of Nigerians; that is the statistics for internet penetration.
Another advert of Airtel storied some neigbours who depended on a young man’s internet data. They had to rush to their benefactor’s house when power went off, a scenario which mocks Nigeria’s erratic power supply. Those neighbours assembled at the Good Samaritan’s door, begging for more data to complete downloads they have initiated. This particular ad does not exaggerate the need of Nigerians not just for internet but for speedy internet data bundles.
Thus, it was great news when Airtel Nigeria launched the Unlimited Data Plans. The data bundles go for N10, 000, N15, 000 and N20, 000 for Unlimited 10, 15 and 20 respectively. On its’ website, Airtel claims the Unlimited Data plans are “designed for heavy data activities like downloading, streaming and sharing with friends and family”.
“Nigerians know that the subscription will expire within thirty (30) days and obviously what it promises is unhindered speed for upload and download”, an Airtel subscriber explained. At a time when Nigerians are complaining over poor quality of service (QoS) by the telcos, Airtel promised unlimited data. This would not only be good news but a technology breakthrough.
These offerings are obviously part of the strategy to give Airtel competitive advantage. The brand is positioned as the smartphone network in a market where WhatsApp calls (active mobile internet) threatens to eclipse voice calls (active voice subscription). According to statistics released by the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC), telecom subscribers using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) grew by 880per cent in July 2017 relative to same period last year. Data is the new civilisation!
However, the Unlimited Data campaign is sheer puffery. A check with Airtel’s website reveals that the data plans are not actually unlimited. The data plans are limited by some certain Fair Usage Policies (FUP). When the consumption of Unlimited 10 reaches 40GB, the speed will be throttled to 256kbps. The Unlimited 15 and Unlimited 20 will both also throttle to a speed of 256kbps when consumption gets to 65GB and 100GB respectively. The TV commercial for the campaign could have had a caveat that “Terms and conditions apply” or a referral to the company’s website for more information.
According to CSG Network’s download speed calculator, a 100MB file would take 51 minutes and 19 seconds to get downloaded at the speed of 256kbps. This shows that the offering is not totally unlimited and using the nomenclature for the product name is an outrageous claim which could mislead subscribers in their decision-making.
NCC’s Guidelines on Advertisements and Promotions, No 3(e) states:“Licensees offering internet connections should state the Internet connection speed available to end-users as well as specific upload and download speed. If the connection speed quoted is only obtainable under special circumstances, then these circumstances should be clearly stated.”
This shows that it is expected that the company quotes on the advert material, the upload and download speed and how consumption levels would chop down the data speed at a certain point. This would help decide whether the package fits for some specific use or not. Some buy data bundles to stream events and the unlimited speed is actually needed.
Take for example the tweet from @AirtelNigeria by 3:01pm on 7th October, 2017, which said: “Get Unlimited 10 for N10, 000, Unlimited 15 for N15, 000 and Unlimited 20 for N20, 000 and start enjoying the unlimited data life!” Such a message is unambiguous in its’ promise.
To make its message clearer, Airtel Customer Care tweeted via @airtel_care in a reply to @TransOceana that: “Each variant of bundle offers Unlimited data for 30 days, which gives you the access to share your data with loved ones”. The irony is that you would not be able to share a data with your loved ones when the speed crashes to 256kbps or less.
Why would the commercials never mention that the data bundles will slow down in speed when consumption reaches a level? Why would Airtel not give subscribers this information via the social media? Why should very important information which borders on the limitations of an unlimited offer be released only on the website?
Puffery in advertising is not illegal; it is rather an ethical dilemma. An ethical dilemma is a practice that does not contravene any law but may not be socially responsible. The vetting guidelines of Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON) states that advert “should be prepared with a high sense of social responsibility and should avoid misinformation”. It is clear that the adverts and social media posts of Airtel contain half-information about the offering and have not guided subscribers properly in making a rational decision.
It is understandable that the competition in the telecom sector is tense. The portability access has given subscribers the freedom to switch brands without losing their lines. Out of the 91,419,943 GSM lines subscribed to internet data in Nigeria, only 22.5 per cent is subscribed to Airtel internet data plans as at July.
Between January and July 2017, Airtel has gained an average of 2, 307 lines monthly and has lost an average of 4, 837 lines monthly due to portability. This means Airtel experienced more subscribers porting away from the network than it receives.
This is the situation for most of the telcos in the first and second quarters of the year.
Analysts claimed “the portability statistics as released by NCC may be a picture of consumers’ response to unfulfilled promises by some telcos”.
Puffing and fluffing in advertising is a common practice in the telecom sector. Consumers are always reacting with vitriolic attacks on social media against the untrustworthy networks whenever it becomes clear that their marketing messages were completely exaggerated. Those attacks on telcos via the social media deplete the goodwill of the brand and aids brand switch through portability.
In his book, Principles and Practice of Advertising, author Hillary Chidi Ozoh stated that advertising has a duty of accountability and that “this duty of accountability is largely a consequence of the overriding social responsibility philosophy that the media should be socially responsible”.
The author, a lecturer and examiner with APCON, said “incomplete description” and “partial disclosures” are forms of deceptive advertising. Incomplete description is explained as “stating some, but not all of the contents of a product”, while partial disclosures is explained as “stating what a product can do but not what it cannot do”.
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