If you’ve spent any time on the Internet you’ve probably noticed the eye-catching adverts that appear on many web pages. Examples include: “1 tip for a tiny belly”, “You are missing a plugin to play videos”, or “CONGRATULATIONS! You could be today’s POLO VIVO winner!”
Clicking on these so-called banner ads will take you to a page requesting your cell number. If you enter your number, and follow a verification process, you will be signed up for a subscription service that costs R5 a day.
The company responsible for many of these banner ads is no fly-by-night operation. It is the South African arm of Buongiorno, a multinational “mobile content developer”. Buongiorno is listed in Milan with a market value of €210m (R2.2bn).
But Buongiorno and its predecessor, iTouch, have a sketchy track record when it comes to customer satisfaction in South Africa.
Indeed, the 40 most recent Buongiorno reports on consumer website Hellopeter are all negative. The majority of complainants allege that Buongiorno deducted money from their accounts without permission.
Buongiorno and its predecessors also have a poor track record with the industry regulator, the Wireless Application Service Providers’ Association (Waspa).
Since its inception, in 2004, Waspa has fined errant members a total of R17.8m. Buongiorno and iTouch account for roughly one fifth of this amount – more than any other Waspa member.
But these fines do not seem to have put a stop to banner ads that could be construed as misleading.
Take, for example, an advert that appears alongside video websites such as YouTube: it has two options, inviting viewers to either “Download” or “Play”. Some viewers could conclude that this banner is not an advert at all, but part of YouTube, and click on it hoping to download a video. Doing so would direct the viewer to a Buongiorno site requesting their cell phone number.
Moneyweb asked Hans Mol, Buongiorno’s managing director of its South African operations, to comment on banner adverts such as the one mentioned above.
Mol replied that he could not “confirm whether those adverts were placed on our behalf by affiliate publishers but we are investigating this thanks to your pointing it out”.
However, Mol claims that the “Download/Play” banner mentioned above is compliant with the Waspa code of conduct. “If you disagree you are entitled to lodge a complaint with WASPA.”
It appears that Buongiorno has little control over the content of banner ads used by its “affiliate publishers.”
Asked to comment, Mol replies: “The agencies we use, place our approved banners across their own network of affiliates, which are independent entities. Nevertheless, if we ascertain that an affiliate publisher is using unapproved banners we ask the network to have them removed and replaced with approved banners immediately or we stop advertising on that affiliate.”
Mol declined to identify said publishers by name.
Moneyweb asked Mol about the banner ads that suggest various prizes are given away daily, including a Polo Vivo, a Mini Cooper and an Apple iPhone.
Mol referred us to the terms and conditions that govern the Polo Vivo and iPad competitions. These documents can be downloaded here and here. The terms and conditions show that only one Polo Vivo will be given away in a competition that closes in April next year, and that only one iPad is given away each month.
This contrasts with Buongiorno’s banner ads, which suggest that a prize is given away daily. A Buongiorno webpage reinforces the daily prize myth. Any attempt to close this page forces the following pop-up to appear: “WAIT! Are you really sure you want to go? Today is the ONLY day you will be able to win an Apple® iPad 2. We are serious, this offer will expire tonight at 11.59PM. Click CANCEL in this window and answer the simple test question for your chance to win!”
Mol claims that the Polo Vivo ad above is “is a variation of our approved advert but it is not a version that we have approved.”
At the time of publication, this Polo Vivo advert was live on various websites, as it has been for several weeks.
So what can be done about misleading advertising for cell phone content services? Complaints can be laid via the Waspa website.
But Waspa’s jurisdiction extends only so far. In a recent adjudication which dealt with Buongiorno’s advertising, Waspa’s adjudicator wrote: “This advert is also, in the view of the adjudicator, misleading in its averments that “YOUR IP WAS CHOSEN AS A CANDIDATE TO WIN AN IPHONE” and “CLICK HERE TO WIN AN IPHONE”, although a finding in that regard is more properly the domain of the Advertising Standards Authority.”
To test the adjudicator’s statement, this journalist laid a complaint against Buongiorno with the ASA. The most recent communication from the ASA (click here to download) informed me: “Please note that we had to go to Waspa for clarification and to determine (if at all) how we will collaborate as it appears that there’s an overlap of jurisdiction. We will then advise you as soon as we have determined the way forward.”
Several other complaints have also been lodged with Waspa by this journalist. Some have been upheld and others are pending.
Prior to publication a draft copy of this article was sent to Mol with the invitation to correct possible factual errors and to offer additional comment.
Mol responded that Hellopeter has only received 41 Buongiorno complaints over the past year. This compares favourably with Vodacom, which received 13204 in the same timeframe. “Given the size of our presence in the market we receive a relatively small percentage of complaints in proportion to users; whilst a zero complaints level is always our target, we think that this low level of complaints indicates that our efforts to exceed regulatory compliance are successful.”
Mol also took issue with Moneyweb’s reference to the fines issued against Buongiorno and its predecessor iTouch: “Your reference to the amount of fines Buongiorno SA has received is inaccurate and factually wrong. Buongiorno South Africa has been fined less than 3% of the total volumes to which you refer. If we were to include fines passed to iTouch the value of those amounts to less than 6%.”
However, Moneyweb’s calculations included fines against Buongiorno UK, which by our calculation, amount to R2.9m and account for 16% of the issued total.
Mol stressed that potential subscribers must always verify their requests to subscribe for Buongiorno’s subscription services, and that they are informed of the service, its cost, the frequency of the cost, and how to unsubscribe.
Mol’s full reply can be downloaded here.