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SBD Global/July 26, 2012/Marketing and Sponsorship

Virgin Media's Usain Bolt TV Campaign Banned By U.K.'s Advertising Watchdog

U.K.'s ad watchdog has banned Virgin Media's Usain Bolt TV ad campaign.
U.K.'s advertising watchdog has banned Virgin Media's multimillion-pound TV campaign featuring Usain Bolt, ruling that the cable firm "could not deliver on a promise relating to superfast broadband," according to Mark Sweney of the London GUARDIAN. Virgin Media's "high-profile TV campaign" consists of a series of ads featuring the Olympic Gold Medal-winning sprinter "mimicking" Virgin founder Richard Branson to promote its £110M ($170M) move to double broadband speed for its Internet customers. Rival Internet service provider BT submitted a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority about one of the TV ads, which featured Bolt promising that customers could say "bye-bye to buffering and hello to a superfast broadband." A Virgin Media spokesperson said, "When one of the world's leading athletes dresses up as a world famous entrepreneur, complete with stuck-on blond beard and space helmet, and says he wants everyone to 'wave bye-bye' to buffering -- this should not be taken as an absolute claim that no Virgin Media customer will ever experience buffering ever again," she said. Clearcast, which screens TV ad scripts for accuracy before they are made and aired, said it believed that the buffering claim was a "statement of intent" by Virgin Media to significantly improve Internet speed. The organization "did not believe that the claim was misleading" (GUARDIAN, 7/25).

MISLEADING AD: MARKETING WEEK's Sebastian Joseph reported that the ASA ruled that the ad "must not appear again in its current form." The ASA said, “Because we understood that users of the service might still experience buffering, we concluded that the claim was misleading.” The advertising watchdog warned Virgin Media not to “state or imply” that users of broadband service would not experience buffering in future campaigns (, 7/25). THE REGISTER's Kelly Fiveash wrote that this is "an expensive mistake" for Virgin Media. The company spent "a whopping" £52.6M (81.3M) on marketing costs in its first quarter. Much of that was spent on TV, print, online and billboard ads "featuring Bolt wearing a fake gingery-blond beard." Also, the ASA slapped Virgin Media for "failing to substantiate claims it made on its website about the company's download speeds" (, 7/25).

LIGHTNING BOLT: The DAILY EXPRESS reported that Bolt and comedian Stephen Fry have helped Virgin Media "post record-beating second-quarter sales." Virgin said that its recent TV ad campaigns, which also star Chair Richard Branson, to promote its superfast broadband speeds and TiVo on-demand TV service had "driven up revenues" 4.2% to just over £1B ($1.5B). TiVo added 261,700 customers over the period to 938,000 and is "on track" to pass 1 million this week, helped by the "expected demand to watch the Olympics" (, 7/25).
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