Vodacom-branded satellite dishes stand outside the headquarters of Vodacom Group Ltd., Vodafone's biggest African business, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photographer: Nadine Hutton/Bloomberg

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has dismissed MTN’s complaint against a Vodacom advert that claims it provides the country’s best network for smartphones.

MTN was left with egg on its face after ASA’s advertising industry tribunal found that even the results of a mobile tracking survey, initiated by MTN to prove that the yellow giant was better than its red counterpart, found it had fallen short.

“MTN is disappointed by the ruling and is… applying its mind as to whether to appeal the ruling,” Fusi Mokoena, the general manager for MTN’s commercial legal department, said.

The commercial shows a toddler watching an online video using a smartphone. When the music on the video plays, the baby chuckles happily. However, when buffering causes the music to pause, the baby starts crying.

When the phone is switched for one displaying the Vodacom logo, the online video plays uninterrupted, which pleases the baby. A voice-over then states: “Best network for smartphones for uninterrupted giggles.”

Simultaneously, the claim: “Best Network for smartphones; only with Vodacom” appears on screen, according to the ASA.

MTN lodged a complaint on October 7 last year claiming the advertisement was misleading and dishonest. A month earlier Telkom had lodged a similar complaint, also claiming that it was disparaging.

Both cases were dismissed as the tribunal found that Vodacom’s third-generation (3G) network covered around 86 percent of the country, while MTN’s coverage was 68 percent.

Telkom and Cell C do not publish their coverage but it is a widely accepted fact that they would cover a smaller area than Vodacom and MTN.

Brian Nielson, a director at research company BMI-TechKnowledge, said that while Vodacom might have won the battle, the decision would not prevent this type of claim from being made in future in order to gain a competitive advantage over rivals.

Competition in the cellular network market is set to gain even greater intensity after the ruling, especially because all of the operators have similar technologies at their disposal.

“With that said, I don’t think the impact can be negated either, as smartphones are part of people’s daily lives, especially if you look at Samsung, which refer to their phone as ‘your life companion’, and are therefore able to elicit an emotional response,” he said.

Also, the ruling meant in the short term that MTN, Telkom and Cell C could look for other ways to win the hearts and minds of consumers “including cleverly crafted messages of their own, not to mention just delivering a great experience at a good price”.

“In the longer term they can invest in their networks to eliminate ‘hot spots’ such as towers where bottlenecks occur,” Nielson said.

From an overall market perspective, any advertising that had an emotional element would elicit some switching behaviour, and might factor into new purchase decisions, he said. But he added that most heavy smartphone users were repeat buyers and probably also on a contract and for the sake of getting a “free” handset would probably not switch networks that easily.

“If you are a customer that lives or works close to an overloaded tower, regardless of which network you are on, you have probably already switched networks if the problem was so severe that you just could not live with it. In fact, dropped calls, rather than broadband speed, is often cited as the reason for such switching behaviour,” he said.