Marketing Gone Wrong: When Has The Fine Line Between Marketing and False Marketing Been Crossed

Bell is one of Canada’s largest telecommunications companies and was first opened their Canadian office in Montreal, Quebec in the year 1880. They offer a wide range of product for both personal and professional use. They provide internet, TV, home phone services, personal phone services and many more.

Do You Read the Fine Print?

Since its Canadian beginning in 1880, there have been a few incidents brought up against the corporation. In December of 2007, the Competition Bureau had discovered that Bell was charging it customers more than the advertised price for a wide array of their services; including home phone, the internet and TV (CBC News, 2011). This was done by hiding additional, mandatory fees within their fine print disclaimers from the user. In a statement given by the Competition Bureau, “A fine-print disclaimer is no license to advertise prices that are not available. If you’re going to be talking about something as important as the total cost to consumers, you better make it sufficiently prominent and clear.” The prices that Bell was advertising was not actually available to their customers (Sturgeon, J. 2011).

An example of some of the additional fees that the consumer needed to pay for would be: modem rental, digital television services, and TouchTone (CBC News, 2011). These additional fees were compulsory for the consumer to pay, but they were not made aware of these fees by Bell when signing the contract.

In a statement from Bell spokesman, Mark Lanton “While we totally disagree, we agreed to resolve the issue with the consent agreement and move forward rather than grinding through a lengthy and costly legal challenge,” (Sturgeon, J. 2011). There are many reasons that a corporation would agree to pay a settlement instead of going to court. Two of the primary reasons that a corporation would agree to settle are mentioned by Mr. Lanton; it is costly and lengthy process. Another reason that corporations agree to settlements over going to court is it keeps the issue out of the public eyes (Duplessis, D, et al. 2017). By bringing the problem to court it generates a wider range of interest by the general public, thus bringing the issue to the attention of the media. If the case garners a decently sized media attention it could sway the public’s opinion, harm the corporation’s image, and hurt the bottom line. The bottom line refers to profit earned by an organization.

In an example provided by the Bureau, Bell’s website was promoting a home bundle – TV services, internet, and home phone – for as low as $69.90 per month. However, due to these hidden fees in the in the fine print, the lowest conceivable price for the user to pay monthly would be $80.27, which is a 15% increase that the consumer would need to pay for (CBC News, 2011).

In June of 2014, the Bureau announced that Bell Canada Inc. agreed to pay a fine of $10 million for the misleading adds that spanned the course of three and half years (Sturgeon, J. 2011). Under the Competition Act, this is the maximum penalty allowed; they have also agreed to stop making the claims (CBC News, 2011) and update their marketing within 60 days.

Verified or Unverified Reviews

Another issue of false advertising that arose for Bell Canada was in November 2014. Certain employees who worked for Bell were posting anonymous, positive, reviews of the MyBell Mobile app on both the iTunes App Store and the Google play store; they did this without disclosing that they worked for Bell (Canadian Press). The Bureau started investigating this case after Bell confirmed that some of they employees were overenthusiastic in posting their reviews (Krashinsky, S. 2015).

Miller and Harkins have suggested in there needs to be a focus on the communicative agency (Miller, Harkins. 2010). They argue that by focusing on the communicative agency clarifies the discourse surround something. In this case, the something the discourse is surrounding the MyBell app. As consumers, there are several different ways that can be employed to determine if goods and services are worth parting with our money. One of the more popular ways that consumers evaluate these goods and services are reviews. If a corporation is attempting to control the information environment, they can also control the consumer decision-making process (Miller, Harkins. 2015).

In an e-mail statement provided to The Globe and Mail by Paolo Pasquini, director of communications and social media said the following:

“The postings were the result of an overzealous effort on the part of our service team to highlight the app. It’s certainly not Bell’s practice to encourage employees to rate our products, and we’re sending a clear message out to the team to that effect.” (Krashinsky, S. 2015).

The media plays a significant role in the production and broadcasting the “truth” (McMullan, J. 2006) to the public. While many corporations have a vested interested in maintaining a certain degree of secrecy, as in they do not want to make some information publicly available. The cost of public disclosure is very high and when corporations do not cooperate with an investigation it can lead the public to believe that they are in fact engaged in these illegal or immoral acts (Marx, G. 1984).  When Bell provided the above statement to The Globe and Mail, what they were doing was getting out ahead of this story. By letting them publish this quote, Bell is attempting to neutralize the situation by shifting the blame away from them and onto individuals. Consequently, this action creates a positive association in the public eye because the corporation has no dirty data to hide. The media is an institution of social control and as such it follows rules that help reproduce and represent order. While producing a story for publication accentuates what members of the public need to know immediately (McMullan, J. 2006). Many people assume that bits of news being published in reputable sources, such as The Globe and Mail, that they research into this manner has already been done. Thus, leading them to take what they read at face value as the truth. When white collar crime is being reported on in the media it is often only found on certain pages or channels that appeal to a specific segment of the population (McMullan, J. 2006). It is usually reported on financial pages, sites or publications that are relevant to the business word. White collar crime is also usually framed in a manner that delineates it from “real crime” (McMullan, J. 2006).

In an agreement reached between Bell and the Bureau, Bell agreed to pay a $1.25 million penalty. This agreement is designed to sustain “its commitment not to direct, encourage or incentivize employees or contractors to rate, rank or review apps in app stores.” (Krashinsky, S. 2015). The Bureau concluded that these reviews and ratings were misleading to the public because they exaggerated the performance of the app and influenced public opinion (Hersh, C. 2015). Bell could gain some more favorable terms from the Bureau than would otherwise be imposed due to their full cooperation in the investigation into this matter.

In the world of business, specifically marketing, this type of review is known as “astroturfing”. Astroturfing is when a someone who represents the company starts posting online about the company’s products and/or services while trying to immediate customers (Krashinsky, S. 2015). Bell receiving a penalty for these types of reviews sends a strong message to other corporations within this industry. The message is that the marketing department will need to make their employees aware of the standards that come into play when online marketing is being used. It is noteworthy that these types of practices are common enough that they gave way to the term, astroturfing. With that being said in the world of business there is a term for everything. However, there is no correlation between the significance of how common it is and having a term. Unfortunately, astroturfing has become such a widespread practice that the Bureau sent out a bulletin in 2013 reminding consumers not to buy into any fake online endorsements and report any that they deem fake to the watchdogs (Krashinsky, S. 2015).

In the two cases presented there are clearly victims, the consumers, and there are defined offenders, Bell. Their roles are not being blurred at all within the first example of the false advertising, due to superfluous mandatory cost being hidden from the consumer. In the case of the false reviews, the issue of the offender is not as clear. It could have been that those employees were acting on their own, thus making them the offenders and not the corporation. Or they could have been following, company orders in which case would make Bell the offender. In either case, the only thing that remains clear is that the victims are the consumers who used those online reviews and ratings to form a decision on downloading and using the app.

There is not a large public following for these cases, as in not many people are following what happens, thus generating very little public discourse. A public following would be when a larger number of the general public is following what is taking place, usually through news outlets and social media, in a given case. An example of this would be when the Enron, the media coverage of the Enron scandal has arguably been the most substantial and sustained media coverage (Friedrichs, D., 2004) of a white-collar crime incident).

Which, in my opinion, is part of the reason that Bell opted to settle these cases outside of the courtroom and pay the fines. Because while the information is out there, the general public does not care enough to go do the research. Therefore, minimizing any potential backlash Bell would face despite the legal actions taken against them by the Bureau and their investigation.

References

CBC News, 2011. (2011, June 28). Bell Canada pays $10M over misleading ads. Retrieved March 05, 2017, from http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/bell-canada-pays-10m-over-misleading-ads-1.1016391

DuPlessis, D., Enman, S. R., King, P., & O’Byrne, S. (2017). Canadian Business and the Law (6th ed.). Toronto: Nelson Education.

Friedrichs, David. 2004. Enron et al. Paradigmatic White-Collar Crime Cases for the New Century. Critical Criminology 12(2): 113-132.

Hersh, C. (2015, October 14). False Reviews Equal Real Fine – Bell Canada Agrees to Pay $1.25 Million Penalty for Misleading Online Reviews. Retrieved March 06, 2017, from http://www.casselsbrock.com/BlogPost/False_Reviews_Equal_Real_Fine___Bell_Canada_Agrees_to_Pay__1_25_Million_Penalty_for_Misleading_Online_Reviews

Krashinsky, S. (2015, October 14). Bell to pay $1.25-million penalty for fake reviews. Retrieved March 05, 2017, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/industry-news/marketing/bell-to-pay-125-million-penalty-for-fake-reviews/article26806629/

Marx, Gary. 1984. “Notes on the Discovery, Collection, and Assessment of Hidden and Dirty Data”. Pp. 78- in J. Schneider and J. Kitsuse, eds. Studies in the Sociology of Social Problems. Ablex. http://web.mit.edu/gtmarx/www/dirty.html

McMullan, John. 2006. News, Truth, and the Recognition of Corporate Crime. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice 48(6): 905-939.

Sturgeon, J. (2011, June 28). Bell fined $10M for ‘misleading advertising’ Retrieved March 05, 2017, from http://business.financialpost.com/fp-tech-desk/bell-fined-10m-for-misleading-advertising?__lsa=a752-5cc2

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