NARB: Customer Stories Should Come to an End

Advertising Law

Reviewing two commercials featuring a “paid real customer story” where the individuals recounted an experience with Verizon Wireless service, the National Advertising Review Board (NARB) recommended that the ads be modified or discontinued.

AT&T challenged the ads, one of which featured Kellene, a dancer who described her experience with the Verizon service on a subway, by demonstrating how she rehearsed a dance routine while streaming a video on the way to the audition.

In the second ad, Ned reported that he suffered a fall of 22 feet in “the middle of the woods,” shattered his pelvis and was saved only because he used his Verizon service to reach his wife by phone.

The National Advertising Division (NAD) found no problems with the Kellene ad but decided that the Ned ad should be discontinued. Both parties appealed. Disagreeing with the NAD, the NARB panel found that the Kellene commercial communicated to consumers that the Verizon service provides effective streaming in underground mass transit systems across the country. Although Verizon argued that the ad portrayed the experience of a “quintessential New Yorker” and only applied to the New York market, the NARB didn’t see where the geographical line was drawn.

Even if some consumers understood that Kellene was on a New York City subway, “the commercial was part of a nationwide campaign, not a local one,” the NARB said. Because “Verizon did not offer any evidence regarding its service’s ability to provide streaming in underground mass transit systems, in New York City or anywhere else,” the claim was unsupported and should be modified or discontinued, the self-regulatory body concluded.

Turning to the Ned ad, the NARB agreed with the NAD’s conclusion, rejecting Verizon’s contention that the commercial did not convey a message that Ned’s experience was representative or typical.

The commercial conveys a superiority message about Verizon’s service, the panel said, especially with a voiceover adding “There for you when you need it most” and the tagline “America’s Most Reliable Network.” Adding to the problem was a circumstance not disclosed in the commercial: Ned actually fell on his home property near Atlanta, the NARB said, where cellphone coverage for all carriers would be expected.

“The commercial conveys the distinct message that Ned was in a remote area, not in a suburb of Atlanta, when he suffered an injury,” the NARB wrote. “As the challenger points out, having such coverage in remote areas would be a distinct marketing advantage for a network, but Verizon did not offer evidence of any such capacity.”

Verizon agreed to comply with the NARB’s recommendation, despite its “strong disagreement” with the decision.

To read the NARB’s press release about the decision, click here.

Why it matters: There was no dispute that the commercials at issue were testimonials, the NARB noted, which “are powerful and influential advertising tools” that viewers are likely to interpret to mean that they can expect to have the same experience. Advertisers should be careful to ensure that if they use a testimonial, the endorser’s experience is a “typical” one.

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