Computer companies are stretching the boundaries of fact in trying to push their products and getting rapped over the knuckles for it.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) told six IT companies in a two-week period in June to prove their claims or get their ads out of print. Usually, computer companies attract only three adjudications a month.
It seems to be part of a trend, as business IT companies take over where computer games companies left off. But this time it is a little different.
In complaints about computer games, the outraged moral majority wanted to protect the consumer and the impressionable. With hardware and commercial software, the complaints are seen as just another way of one business nobbling its competitors.
According to ASA figures, the rapid rise in complaints about other computer products are matched by a drop in complaints about adverts for games.
One complaint came from millennium bug company Prove It 2000, which claimed Compaq had been telling lies about the vendor's year 2000 compliance.
Compaq has strenuously denied this. 'It's a case of scaremongering for customers,' said Steve Torbe, Compaq's year 2000 manager. But he added: 'Any complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority is something we take seriously. The ASA needs to be there.'
What most annoyed Compaq was that Prove It hired a public relations company to alert newspapers to the complaint, which Torbe said was a cheap way to advertise itself. The complaint remains unresolved. The ASA is investigating the issue of millennium compliance and is aware of possibilities for criticism in this contentious issue. It has to be doubly sure before a ruling.
Battles similar to the one between Compaq and Prove It 2000 are becoming a growth area for the IT industry. One recent mini-slugfest between internet service providers NetBenefit and Virtual Internet showed the frustrations players are having with the system.
Late last year, in the London offices of NetBenefit, managing director Jonathan Robinson was flicking through magazines carrying the company's adverts and fuming. NetBenefit, he said, was playing it straight with its advertising copy, spelling out to prospective clients why they should sign up and make money with the company's business-oriented services.
But he believed competitor Virtual Internet wasn't dealing in facts.
Its claims that it was 'the largest domain name registrar and Website hosting company in Europe', and had 'domain names registered in over 200 countries' were untrue and unfair, Robinson thought.
He complained and was amazed to see the advertisement continue to run, rather than being pulled while the issue was undecided. It took six months to obtain a ruling and even now Virtual Internet continues to make the claim on its Website - a medium too broad for the ASA to deal with.
Tom Cartwright, managing director at Virtual Internet, said: 'The claim is a bit vague, but then everyone does it. There is no way of checking. We've changed our pitch on advertising now. We've just won an award for having the fastest server - so that's the claim we now have running in all our adverts.' After all NetBenefit's work, the company is simply changing tack.
However, Dixons Stores Group is becoming an old hand at cutting off competitors when they push the boundaries too far. According to a source, the company's stores have staff expert in advertising rules. They scan publications for competitors' adverts and test the claims they make to see if they hold water, the source told PC Dealer. If they don't, it's off to the ASA.
One favoured Dixons strategy is to test for availability of a promised product - and if one store is found lacking, a complaint is lodged. Another favourite target is the approach of competing companies offering PCs for under #1,000.
In many instances, placement of the 'plus VAT' text on an ad has become an art form. Dixons objected to a national advertisement by TAG PC Technology for a computer priced at #995, on the grounds that the print underneath saying '#1,169.13 inc VAT' was given less prominence. TAG PC thought it was not breaking the advertising codes, but the ASA said it required advertisements not addressed exclusively to trade to give equal prominence to VAT-inclusive prices and VAT-exclusive ones - another victory for Dixons. TAG PC refused to comment.
Although some might see it as a contradiction in terms, advertising is supposed to be 'legal, decent, honest and truthful' - the motto of the ASA. In 1995, the organisation conducted a study of advertising to assess advertising code compliance. It examined more than 6,000 advertisements and found 96 per cent presented no problem. Last year, the ASA handled 10,678 complaints about 8,291 advertisements. Following investigation, 512 advertisements were withdrawn.
Now that gaming is under control, ASA external affairs manager Chris Reed is watching hardware run away with itself. 'It's the cut and thrust of the free market,' he observed. 'It's competition on the increase and companies testing the boundaries.'
The ASA is also having to cope with the growth of the internet, said Reed. Only occasionally will it venture onto the Web to check IT companies it sees openly flouting the rules.
The authority does not investigate every complaint it receives. A representative at PCS Direct said the company has been admonished three times in the past six months. Efforts to keep adverts within the rules have proved fruitless and she believes PCS is being targeted by a competitor. 'Everybody else makes the same claims in their advertisements,' she said. 'The company does not do it deliberately. It's not in anybody's interest to put out an illegal advertisement - not if you want to stay in business.'
Vendor giant fires love arrow at New Signature and SAP partner Edenhouse
CEO Klaus Schlichtherle says 'sizeable' deal close to being inked as distributor chases €1bn turnover
Deloitte has been appointed as administrator for the struggling distie
It's been announced that billionaire tech pioneer Paul Allen died on Monday from non-Hodgkin lymphoma