Telecom ads sneak past French ban on comparative advertising

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PARIS--A French court has upheld the use of comparative advertising in the telecommunications sector for the first time, setting a precedent that could end a longstanding ban on ads comparing products or prices.

Two separate commercial courts ruled in early July that Swedish telecoms operator Tele2 had broken no laws with ads comparing its lowest prices to rates offered by leading operators France Telecom, Cegetel and 9 Telecom.

The Tele2 ads, created by J. Walter Thompson Co., Paris, focused on a simple price comparison, demonstrating that Tele2 offered clients peak period rates that were less than half those offered by France Telecom and 25% cheaper than those offered by Cegetel. The campaign appeared in the print press during June under the slogan: "No Comment."

Vivendi-owned Cegetel argued before the Paris Commercial Court that Tele2's ads were "illicit, untruthful and likely to lead clients into error." Similarly, France Telecom claimed in a suit before the Versailles Commercial Court that Tele2's advertising amounted to "unfair competition" because it only focused on peak period rates, rather than time slots where its prices were less competitive.

The courts turned down the two claims, ruling in each case that the ads met French standards on comparative advertising, principally criteria of objectivity and fairness, adding that the ads were clearly focused on identical products.

Tele2 officials took the decision in stride, announcing plans to renew the comparative ad campaign in mid-July, including price comparisons in other time slots. "The decision has encouraged Tele2 to continue with its comparative strategy," says a JWT source, "especially since its rates are the lowest on the market, in practically every time slot."

The Swedish telecom giant, a division of the Kinnevik Group, has recruited more than one million clients since its French launch in March 1999, and is now present in 11 European countries.

Copyright July 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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