Martin Freeman Vodafone ad escapes ban but can't get four bars underground 1

Martin Freeman Vodafone ad escapes ban despite EE protest

Following allegations from EE about a TV advert starring Martin Freeman for Vodafone, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has stepped in to set things straight.

The advert itself, produced by Ogilvy & Mather Advertising, aired in August 2017.

The ASA received complaints from rival network, EE, and 16 other complainants, alleging that the advert was both misleading and “likely to cause fear or distress among the public”.

Martin Freeman is the celebrity lead of the ad, which boasts of Vodfone’s expansive network coverage across the UK.

The ad, titled “The Chase”, opens with the police pursuit of a gang of mobsters through city streets. The mobsters, driving a black sports car, pull into an underground car park to evade capture and hide.

In this car park, Martin Freeman and a female character are loading groceries into the back of their cars. The mobsters pull into the empty bay between them and demand that Freeman’s character “keep packing” his shopping.

Despite Freeman’s protests, and comical jabs about frozen prawns, he obliges the intimidating criminals.

The female character then signals to Freeman that she will “call the police”, which he says is impossible because she will “never get reception” in an underground car park.

Martin Freeman Vodafone ad escapes ban but can't get four bars underground

As the situation worsens, the police suddenly arrive and arrest the criminals. The female character explains to a confused Freeman that she’s “on Vodafone”, and shows him the “four bars” of reception on her phone.

The ad ends with a voice-over promising “outstanding indoor coverage on our most reliable network ever”.

EE took exception to Vodafone’s implied message that only Vodafone customers could make calls to the police or other emergency services in areas with no mobile signal, such as an underground car park.

Whilst we considered that advertisers should take particular care with an ad’s tone and message when making reference to contacting the emergency services, we did not consider that, in this case, the ad’s message would cause distress amongst the public.

We therefore concluded that the ad was not harmful.

- ASA ruling: 14 February 2018

Emergency calls are actually a special case for mobile networks, as they all must follow Ofcom’s “999 / emergency roaming service” rules. This means that even when your network can’t provide you with a signal, you can still connect to emergency services through one of their competitors.

For this reason, the advert’s logic of being “on Vodafone”, and therefore able to make an emergency call in the underground car park, is certainly false.

However, Vodafone argued that the advert in question is “deliberately trying to be humorous and was clearly fantastical in its approach”.

In addition, they assumed that all the ad’s viewers were “sufficiently well-informed” to know that making 999 calls is possible with any network provider.

Vodafone also argued that the lines “I’m on Vodafone” and “four bars” were referring to the network’s impressive indoor capabilities, and not claiming the network’s exclusive ability to contact the police.

An ASA ruling on the ad came down on the side of Vodafone, agreeing that viewers would indeed see it as a comic scenario and not a realistic situation.


Samuel Newman is a consumer journalist and blogger based in Sheffield.
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