Advertising Internet Speeds: Can You Handle the Truth?

In The Wall Street Journal online, Carl Bialik, The Numbers Guy writer and blogger, analyzes the numbers behind advertised versus actual broadband Internet download speeds, and government efforts to measure what the consumer receives compared with what is promised by the ISPs.

In his posting entitled, "How Speedy Are High-Speed Internet Lines?", Mr. Bialik examines the issue of whether statistics derived from a report commissioned by the Federal Communications Commission ( are used in a way that is meaningful to consumers when evaluating the offerings of Internet service providers.

Notably, Mr. Bialik’s article also compares the approach taken by the UK’s Office of Communications (Ofcom) in measuring the speeds offered on the other side of the pond, which maintains the panel of tested carriers in secret to prevent any "gaming" of the test process and system.

Joseph I. ("Joe") Rosenbaum is quoted in the posting in connection with some of the legal issues that arise when statistics and factual information contained in government or other reports are used in advertising. Truth (facts) may not, as in the case of defamation, be an absolute defense.

The government may feel that consumers can’t handle the truth. Or at least the truth, depending on the context and the manner in which it is used in advertising. When, for example, can statements that are literally true become false or misleading? As has been previously noted in Legal Bytes, using old facts can be deceptive and misleading when facts are outdated and new facts are available, or when the old facts clearly don’t apply.

In some cases, even current facts can be misleading. If I advertise that an article will be posted on Legal Bytes once a month and I post two, can I claim that Legal Bytes beats its own advertised promise to consumers by double? If you and I enter a race and I win, can you advertise that I came in next to last and you came in second? Is that true? Yes. Is it misleading? Yes. I’ve omitted facts that are material to the information quoted and that are material to the context for you to evaluate.
The truth, after all, is not always that simple and I am grateful for that. As in the words of William Jennings Bryan: "If it weren’t for lawyers, we wouldn’t need them."

Advertising: Misleading? Deceptive? What Do Consumers Think?

I have to thank Carl Bialik, The Numbers Guy writer and blogger for The Wall Street Journal, for including a quote in his recent (September 23, 2011) column, Bag Battle Takes a Statistical Turn.

The column focuses on the use of statistics by competitors and analysts alike – in this case statistics that related to claims made by Chicobag about the environmental impact of reusable plastic bags that many retail stores use to bag items, from groceries to clothing, when you check out with your purchases. It seems that Chicobag made some claims – citing statistics – about its products. Mr. Bialik’s column notes that Hilex Poly and some other competitors challenged the claims being made by Chicobag, and were unable to come to grips with either the numbers or the claims; litigation ensued.

Although Mr. Bialik focuses on the way numbers are used and the difficulties inherent in accumulating and using statistics – often when the subject matter may actually be a moving target – the legal issue is similarly complex. More often than not, false, misleading, deceptive advertising claims challenge the explicit veracity of a claim and whether that claim can be substantiated or whether the “net impression” or implicit claims (e.g., pictures or activities) can mislead or potentially deceive consumers. This claim, brought as an action under the Lanham Act – seeking an injunction and damages for false advertising and unfair competition for both a violation of section 43(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a), and under a state statute (South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act, South Carolina Code Annotated § 39-5-10, et seq.) – really revolves around whether the veracity or inaccuracy of claims (even if they can be substantiated or derived from facts that were believed to be true when stated) makes any difference at all in the minds of consumers.

Without giving away The Numbers Guy’s secrets (or forgetting the Federal Trade Commission Act that prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce”), the legal claim, in my view, hinged not on whether the statistics claimed by Chicobag were incorrect or even in some cases materially inaccurate, but whether the particular claims as made using those statistics, were material to a consumer. Whether a consumer was likely to make a different purchasing decision – or might at least be informed enough to consider doing so – based on the degree of inaccuracy.

So when you think of my blog Legal Bytes, I’ll close with a claim that everyone sees on those pizza cartons around the country – maybe the world: “You’ve tried the rest. Now try the best!” Can you say “puffery”?