Samsung misled consumers in advertising its phones can be used while surfing, in swimming pools, or frolicking at the beach, the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission has alleged in a Federal Court action.

The ACCC launched the case after investigating a three-year Samsung Australia marketing campaign featuring over 300 advertisements across Facebook, TV, email, banner ads, and other channels.

All reiterated or supported the mobile phone giant’s assertion that Galaxy phones – ranging from the A5 model to the current S10 – are protected “against water” for up to 30 minutes and depths of 1.5m.

Despite the promise in its advertising and literature, Samsung had denied many warranty claims for water damage, the ACCC noted.

To beach, or not to beach?

A broad range of lifestyle photos, videos, and social-media posts – catalogued in the ACCC’s Federal Court filing – show, for example, a swimmer reading his phone while sitting on the bottom of a pool and a surfer diving under an ocean wave.

This, even though small print on Samsung’s Web site advises that the Galaxy S10+, S9, and Note9 are “not advised for beach or pool use”.

The advertisements led many journalists and YouTube vloggers to test just how waterproof the phones are – but those stories may have also confused consumers who don’t read the fine print.

Samsung, the ACCC alleges, “has made and continues to make express or implied representations…that the Galaxy phones would be suitable for use in, or exposure to, all types of water (including, for example, oceans and swimming pools) and/or would not be adversely affected by use in, or exposure to, all types of water for the useful life of the phone.”

The company made these claims despite not undertaking “sufficient testing” into the effect of immersion in liquid on the phones’ useful life, and nonetheless “intended to and did refuse responsibility for damage caused to the Galaxy phones by use in liquid.”

“Samsung showed the Galaxy phones used in situations they shouldn’t be to attract customers,” ACCC chair Rod Sims said in a statement noting “Samsung phones which were advertised as being water resistant were sold at a higher price than Samsung phones which do not have this feature.”

When waterproof isn’t waterproof

Legal and liability issues have long prevented the smartphone industry from using the word ‘waterproof’ to describe their phones – instead preferring ‘water resistant’, which implies that a device can only resist water incursion for a certain amount of time, and at a certain depth.

Devices are rated based on the IEC60529 standard, which defines two-digit Ingress Protection (IP) ratings representing dust and water resistance.

IP ratings only relate to immersion in fresh water – a point that Samsung references in its own explanation of its devices’ water resistant ratings, but which the ACCC alleges the phone maker ignored by advertising its phones being used in ocean activities.

Samsung’s own page explaining IP68 water resistance advises consumers not to immerse the device deeper than 1.5m and do not expose the device to “water moving with force, such as water running from a tap, ocean waves, or waterfalls”.

Dropping or banging the phone against something may also damage the phone’s water and dust-resistant features, the page advises.

Market rival Apple used water resistance as a key selling point in announcing its iPhone XS last September, but offers similar qualification about the water resistance of its phones – noting that splash, water, and dust resistance “are not permanent conditions and resistance might decrease as a result of normal wear.”

Apple rates its iPhone XS and XS Max to IP68 standards, while the iPhone XR/X/8/8 Plus/7/7 Plus are certified to IP67. All include a visible Liquid Contact Indicator that turns red when exposed to any liquid containing water.

Apple notes “liquid damage” to its iPhones and iPods isn’t covered by warranty, and advises against swimming or bathing with an iPhone, exposing it to pressurised or high velocity water, using it in a sauna or steam room, intentionally submerging it in water, or exposing it to soap, detergent, acids, perfume, sunscreen, and other liquids.

The ACCC is seeking penalties, consumer redress orders, injunctions, declarations, publication orders, along with an order as to findings of fact, and costs.