The controversy was sparked by a national press ad which stated in bold 'Free UK* Evening and Weekend calls for a year'. Smaller text below stated '£10.75 line rental applies. Offer extended until 30th April'.
Talk Talk Telecom challenged whether the claim was misleading, because it believed that the cost of the calls were included in the package price and that BT had used the term 'free' for longer than a reasonable period.
BT said at the time of the promotion that its line rental (or Option 1) was £10.75 a month (with Direct Debit and paper free billing).
The operator's Option 2, which included most UK geographic calls at evenings and weekends as well as 100 texts, was £3.95 a month or £14.70 a month including line rental.
BT said that customers who took up the offer in the ad received the inclusive elements of Option 2 for the price of Option 1 for 12 months.
Because the cost of the inclusive element was omitted during the first year of the offer, BT considered that the element was free rather than included within the £10.75 fee.
The telco added that the offer was launched on 15 August 2006 and was extended at the end of December, the end of March and then again until the end of April.
This extension was offered to meet high demand, according to BT, and there was no consumer detriment caused by the extension of the offer, particularly because it was clear in their ad that the offer had been extended.
BT understood that the ASA had previously ruled that offers could be described as free for a reasonable period only to prevent permanently included elements from being described for more than a short period as free.
It argued, however, that the ruling did not affect the nature of limited period special offers generally and did not apply in this instance.
These assertions were rejected by the ASA, which upheld the complaint. The watchdog noted that the 'free' calls were available to consumers who took up the offer for a period of 12 months only and that after that period they would cease to be 'free'.
"We agreed that, because the 'free' element was available for a specified period only, even if that period and the promotion of the offer lasted longer than six months, consumers would not come to regard the 'free' element as an inclusive part of the offer," the ASA stated.
"We noted that customers who took up the offer would receive the same elements of BT's Option 2 package for the price of their Option 1 package, which included line rental only.
"However, we also noted that the normal contract length for the Option 1 package was 12 months but that for the purposes of the offer BT had extended the contract duration to 18 months."
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