A commercial for Meta Platform's WhatsApp messaging service wrongly conveys that wireless carriers routinely read people's text messages, an industry self-regulatory group said in an opinion released Wednesday.
The 60-second spot -- "Doubt Delivered," which ran during the NFL's AFC Championship Games -- also made the unsupported claim that people have to use a specialized app like WhatsApp to protect messages from pervasive eavesdropping, the National Advertising Division of the BBB National Programs found.
“The overarching takeaway of 'Doubt Delivered' is one of casual and persistent snooping on the recipients’ mail,” the watchdog writes.
The decision stemmed from a rare challenge to the ad by the trade group CTIA, which represents AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and other wireless companies. (Most disputes handled by the National Advertising Division involve one company's challenge to another's ad, as opposed to a trade group's challenge to an ad.)
CTIA argued that the WhatsApp ad disparages wireless carriers and overstated the risks of unencrypted SMS.
The spot depicts a mail carrier delivering open packages to multiple people's homes.
When one recipient asks the carrier why he's delivering mail that is already open, he responds, “Don't worry. Nobody read them.” At another point in the ad, one person on the carrier's route holds opened bills in her hand and asks the carrier, “Do you want to pay a bill since you went through them?”
The carrier also tells people that SMS texts are “just like these -- already opened,” referring to the mail he is delivering. He adds, “Like, if this was an unencrypted text, I just read it.”
A voiceover says unencrypted texts are "open," and the ad ends with a written screen telling people to protect their privacy by using WhatsApp's end-to-end encryption.
CTIA took issue with the claim that unencrypted texts are “open,” arguing that the risk that a text message will be intercepted is actually very small.
The industry organization also said the ad wrongly knocks wireless carriers by implying that they (and other outsiders) “routinely and without consequence, read user’s text messages and view images sent by text message,” according to the opinion.
WhatsApp countered by presenting evidence that unencrypted SMS texts are in fact more vulnerable to security threats than messages sent with end-to-end encryption.
The company also contended that the ad doesn't bash wireless carriers, but merely uses humor and hyperbole. WhatsApp additionally noted that ad doesn't show the mail carrier himself opening letters or reading mail before it's delivered.
The National Advertising Division sided with WhatsApp regarding statements that text messages are “open,” comparable to opened letters.
But the self-regulatory group found that the ad also conveys the unsupported claims that wireless carriers read people's texts, and that people need to use WhatsApp (or another specialized app) to guard against eavesdropping. The watchdog said WhatsApp should revise or halt both of those claims.
WhatsApp plans to appeal to the National Advertising Review Board of the BBB National Programs.