'Unlimited' war just pedantic semantics?

Summary:Just what do telcos mean by 'unlimited'? And why do they insist on using loaded words to sell 'unlimited' and 'infinite' services that are in reality offering something much different? Is it just business as usual in marketing, or is it time to hold them to account for their chronic abuses of the English language?

A while back, I saw an advertisement for a lifetime supply of twist ties — a large spool seemingly big enough to close millions of plastic bags. This was patently absurd, of course, because implying that it was a lifetime supply begs the question: what happens when you use them all? Assuming there's no Moirae-styled skulduggery going on, when you get to the end of the roll and you're still breathing, somebody has told a big, fat lie.

The answer, of course, is that the phrase "lifetime supply" has become synonymous with "heaps and heaps". In the same way, words like "infinite", "unlimited" and even the so-often-abused-as-to-have-become-meaningless "ultimate" have become endemic in our telecommunications industry, where they're used to try to drum up customer excitement over plans that are usually anything but unlimited.


(Twist ties mage by Evan Amos, public domain)

As always, there is a fine line between marketing and downright deception — and many carriers seem hell-bent on both straddling and crossing it. Yet where they might have gotten away with it years ago, a spate of legal successes by an emboldened ACCC has no doubt sent shudders through telco marketing departments everywhere. TPG has come in the crosshairs, Dodo received a significant fine and Optus has copped one sanction after another for its "unlimited" advertising.

The latest Optus slap-down, penalties for which are yet to be determined, reminds me of an email exchange I had with Optus marketing folks several months ago. I had written to inquire about the fine print on a mobile TV ad, which spruiked a deal that included unlimited calls to "GSM mobiles". Surely this was a mistake, I asked, since basically nobody has had a GSM mobile service for years — GSM, of course, being the ubiquitous 2G mobile standard that stopped being state-of-the-art half a decade ago.

Optus defended the ads, arguing that "GSM" refers to all mobiles but satellite phones. But did you know that? Would you consider the iPhone, or HTC Desire, or Nokia N8 to be GSM mobiles? And would the midday chat-show audience be familiar with this rather unusual turn of phrase?

It's important that telcos consider what their customers would consider reasonable. Vodafone customers, for example, would consider it reasonable that their mobile services actually provide reception when they want to make a call.

I certainly wouldn't; in common usage, GSM is a precursor to 3G, which made the Optus ad sound like you could only make free calls to 3G Luddites and would pay normal rates to ring anybody that had bothered to update their mobiles in the past five years. It seemed to make perfect sense to Optus, but in cases like this it's important that telcos consider what their customers would consider reasonable. Vodafone customers, for example, would consider it reasonable that their mobile services actually provide reception when they want to make a call, but Vodafone has had very different ideas until recently.

My email exchange with Optus ended when I suggested it probably needed a new advertising agency, given the ever-growing number of instances where the wording in its ads has been unclear and given it trouble on several occasions.

Yet even a new advertising agency won't save Optus from itself: the ACCC's initial victory clearly suggested that our number-two telco needs to change its approach — and imposed a three-year ban on similar campaigns — but I don't think it was talking about adding a line of microscopic T&Cs at the bottom of the ad.

Years of trial and error have conditioned us to accept that the actual experience of technology is usually far less than we imagine it to be. Ditto with internet access, which I'd venture most people have already experienced at one time or another, and have certainly come to appreciate as being something with both advantages and limitations.

In this case, the limitations lie in semantics around the definition of "unlimited".

It would be so easy for carriers to step away from these words, but they stubbornly insist on poking the ACCC with a short stick. Dodo's "Unlimited" plans, which I note it is still selling, seem equally problematic. And, of course, Vodafone's adoption of the word "infinite" when we all know that its network, in particular, has proved to be extremely finite indeed. The people choosing these words are like the people that decided to label that lifetime supply of twist ties — they figure nobody would ever call them on it.

Telcos would make consumers a lot happier if they just named their plans to something more accurate — say, Use Lots Get Nobbled or Yes Uploads Do Count or Fast Until Two Users Log On or No Quota Free Video Here.

Who do they think they're fooling? The way the industry is going, the telcos would make consumers a lot happier if they just named their plans to something more accurate — say, Use Lots Get Nobbled or Yes Uploads Do Count or Fast Until Two Users Log On or No Quota Free Video Here? Like the hapless managers and players of the St Kilda Saints — who are definitely not saints — carriers just try, over and over again, to promote themselves as responsible and caring, but with the same loaded words.

Perhaps, if we can accept that the Brisbane Lions are not in fact a pack of large cats and the Melbourne Demons are not actually hellspawn bent on the destruction of the world as we know it, we can accept that use of words "unlimited" and "infinite" are just typical exaggerations of marketing, like when Ferrero claims Nutella is healthy?

Yet, that often-used legal test — whether a reasonable person would have reached a certain conclusion on the basis of the evidence presented — seems to have little relevance in the telco-regulation space (although Optus tried to use it with little success). The ACCC is regulating telco advertising as though customers have the intelligence of primordial mould.

At face value, the spirit with which the ACCC has pursued our telcos' hopeless telco advertising companies seems to reflect such egregiously semantic pickiness that it's not clear whether the telcos are more deserving of punishment, or their government overlords. Yet telcos have shown themselves to be willing, time and again, to stretch the meanings of words to suit their marketing; perhaps, given their track record and the fast-escalating rate of complaints against them, clamping down is just a necessary part of getting the sector to clean up its act.

What do you think? Is the ACCC being too picky, or should telcos stop trying to use such loaded words to trick their customers? And have you been stung by limited unlimited plans?

Topics: Broadband, E-Commerce, Government, Government : AU, NBN, Optus, Telcos

About

As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

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