AT&T will stop using its “5G Evolution” branding after the National Advertising Review Board (NARB) found it misleading.
The NARB and the National Advertising Division (NAD) are divisions of the BBB National Programs. T-Mobile had challenged AT&T’s marketing claims, bringing its complaint to the NAD.
At the heart of the issue was AT&T’s use of the label “5G Evolution” to describe souped up 4G LTE. The company tried to further clarify/muddy the issue by calling it “The First Step in 5G.” In fact a blog post in 2018 by Andre Fuetsch, president of AT&T Labs and Chief Technology Officer, is filled with back-and-forth marketing speak to give the impression that “5G Evolution” is 5G, without actually crossing the line and saying something that would be a blatant lie.
For example, Fuetsch writes: “We’re laying the 5G network foundation with 5G Evolution and LTE-LAA. In technology terms, that means we’re upgrading cell towers with LTE Advanced features like 256 QAM, 4×4 MIMO, and 3-way carrier aggregation. These technologies serve as the runway to 5G by boosting the existing LTE network and priming it for the future of connectivity. We can enable faster speeds now, and upgrade to 5G when it’s ready.”
As can be seen by that paragraph, Fuetsch practically writes himself into the verbal equivalent of a pretzel in an effort to tout “5G Evolution” as 5G; all the while technically acknowledging it’s really 4G LTE; all while, at the same time, pointing out it’s the runway to 5G.
Unfortunately, this kind of semantic gymnastics is nothing new for AT&T. In 2019, the company agreed to a $60 million settlement over misleading claims it made about its unlimited data plans. Similarly, in 2014, the company settled to the tune of $105 million for deceptive billing practices.
In this latest instance, the NAD had recommended AT&T stop using the branding, a decision that the wireless carrier appealed to the NARB. In its decision the NARB has upheld the NAB’s previous decision:
Agreeing with NAD’s findings and recommendations, the NARB panel determined that both claims will mislead reasonable consumers into believing that AT&T is offering a 5G network and recommended that the claims be discontinued. At NAD and on appeal, it was not disputed that the AT&T network is not a 5G network. The NARB Panel agreed with NAD’s analysis and concluded that the term “Evolution” is not likely to alert consumers to the fact that the service is not 5G. The Panel noted that the current prevalent technology in wireless is 4G LTE, and LTE stands for “evolution.” Thus, consumers may well interpret “Evolution” in the challenged claims as signifying that AT&T’s technology has already evolved into 5G.
Further, the Panel agreed with NAD’s conclusion that the addition of “The First Step in 5G” does not cure the concern that consumers could reasonably take away the message that beginning 5G technology is delivered. The Panel noted that a reasonable consumer could conclude that the reference to “The First Step to 5G” was the advertiser’s way of promoting a 5G network, while promising an even more robust 5G network at a later time, especially since the slogan is being used in conjunction with “5G Evolution.”
To no one’s surprise, AT&T disagreed with the findings, but has indicated it will comply with them.