AT&T to stop using ‘5G Evolution’ in ads after unsuccessful appeal

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The controversial 5GE connectivity icon that appears on smartphones when AT&T’s customers are still connected to the carrier’s 4G LTE network is not impacted by the decision. (Getty Images)

AT&T said it will stop using its “5G Evolution” marketing message following an unsuccessful appeal to an advertising industry review board, which found the claim misled consumers to believe the carrier is offering a 5G network instead of its upgraded 4G LTE network.

AT&T said that “as a supporter of the self-regulatory process” it will comply with the National Advertising Review Board’s recommendations including halting the use of “5G Evolution, The First Step to 5G.”

Still, AT&T stood by its use of “5G Evolution” to describe parts of its 4G LTE network that were upgraded with added spectrum and LTE Advanced technologies like carrier aggregation, 4x4 MIMO and 256 QAM, which resulted in improved performance.

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“AT&T respectfully disagrees with the reasoning and result reached by the Panel majority. AT&T’s customers nationwide continue to benefit from dramatically superior speeds and performance that its current network provides,” stated an AT&T spokesperson via email.

RELATED: Verizon told to tweak 5G ad claims

AT&T appealed after the National Advertising Division (NAD) previously came to the conclusion that the word “Evolution” is unlikely to signal to consumers the fact that the service is not actually 5G and recommended AT&T stop using the term, which were challenged by T-Mobile. NAD is the investigative unit that reviews national advertising across mediums as part of the industry’s self-regulation system. 

NARB and NAD decisions extend to any paid commercial message in any medium – that includes TV advertisements, messages on AT&T’s websites, in-store, as well as product labeling. AT&T, however, had already stopped running 5G Evolution TV advertisements and a new postpaid competition report from Wave7 Research indicates much of the carrier’s in-store signage is focused on “Building 5G on America’s best network.”

AT&T’s website still clearly lays out its 5G Evolution message though, and while there are no set time limits to comply with NAD or NARB recommendations, a spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau (BBB) National Programs (of which NARB and NAD are both divisions) said it generally expects website advertising to change within a week or two of a company receiving the decision.

Print, in-store and television ads take longer, but compliance is expected within a month or so.

If AT&T doesn’t follow through, BBB National Programs has a process that first involves seeking more information on what steps the company has taken to halt the messaging. If a good faith effort hasn’t been made, then they would be referred to the appropriate regulatory authority. Usually that’s the FTC, but in AT&T’s case it would also include the FCC and possibly state attorneys general, according to the BBB National Programs.

As has been widely reported, the controversial and often criticized 5GE connectivity icon that appears on smartphones when AT&T’s customers are still connected to the carrier’s 4G LTE network is not impacted by the decision since advertising doesn’t extend to the device itself.

It’s not unusual for competitors to challenge each other’s claims – for example Verizon is appealing a NAD decision last week that recommends Verizon stop using the claim that it is delivering “the most powerful 5G experience for America.” The 5G Evolution marketing, however, has been an issue that garnered backlash since AT&T first debuted it in 2017. The 5GE connectivity icon also struck a nerve when it popped up on smartphones in 2019 after a software push and was widely criticized by media and competitors, which saw it as a slight to consumers and 5G technology itself.

Verizon CTO Kyle Malady penned an open letter at the time, pressing the wireless industry to commit to labeling something as 5G “only if new device hardware is connecting to the network using new radio technology.”

T-Mobile slammed it as “fake 5” and Sprint filed a lawsuit against AT&T over its use. That was settled out of court last year, with AT&T continuing to use the 5GE icon. Although AT&T’s 5G Evolution marketing has seen its end, it appears 5GE lives on.

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