Misleading Marketing

Sometimes it’s just too easy to point out corporate stupidity and today I’m taking that easy road. You might be aware that the FTC is suing AT&T for allegedly misleading consumers by offering them “unlimited” data plans, and cutting back their data speed when they exceeded a maximum monthly allotment of data usage. AT&T doesn’t deny doing it, which is smart since there is ample evidence to support the accusation. Nope. Instead, they’ve told the FTC that their hands are clean since customers should have known they were going to be throttled if they used too much data.

I’m not all that knowledgable about network congestion management.  I do know that all ISPs (and a wireless carrier is one of those although you might not think of them that way) use “traffic shaping” to manage the load on their system.  Generally that’s something that’s imposed on a short-term basis to manage load.  So while there may be a heavy demand for bandwidth during primetime evening hours, traffic is much lighter in the middle of the night, for example.  Wireless carriers (except for Sprint) all impose limits on the bandwidth a user can have.  In my mind it’s a false scarcity since most people don’t come close to using all the bandwidth in their plans.  Even with the explosion of mobile video usage, no one is claiming that our wireless infrastructure is near its limit.  But let’s put aside the alleged technical issue and focus on the real point.

You can’t sell something as “unlimited” and then place limits on it.  Selling someone an unlimited high-speed data plan which becomes very low-speed after a certain, unstated point is misleading at best and fraudulent at worst.  The  fact that customers continue to renew their contracts isn’t an indicator that they don’t mind being deceived; it’s more of an indication about how little choice we all have.

This quote, taken from a MediaPost article on the subject is what I find particularly galling:

AT&T adds that consumers with unlimited data plans signed up for those contracts even though they “had reason to anticipate the possibility” that they would be throttled.

I don’t know how someone at AT&T wrote that with a straight face.  Really?  When you said “unlimited” a customer with zero technical training about network management should have anticipated that once they crossed some boundary known only to you they would suffer a service degradation?

Any of us in business need to run our businesses in accordance with the business model we develop to maintain profitability. If AT&T’s engineers tell them that throttling is necessary, so be it.  The point is that we need to let our customers know what they’re buying – honestly, transparently, and actively.  Lying isn’t a marketing plan – it’s just stupid.  Right?

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