Who: US Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
Where: United States
When: 30 June 2014
Law stated as at: 13 August 2014
Cosmetics company L’Oreal USA, Inc. has reached a settlement agreement with the FTC over charges that L’Oreal deceptively advertised some of its skin care products with unsubstantiated claims that falsely emphasised the “science” behind its products.
In a US-wide advertising campaign that utilised multiple media outlets, L’Oreal USA claimed that its Lancome Genefique skin care product was “clinically proven” to “boost genes’ activity and stimulate the production of youth proteins that would cause “visibly younger skin in just 7 days”, and provide results for a specific percentage of users.
Similar messages were conveyed about its Youth Code products, with L’Oreal claiming a “new era of skincare: gene science” and that consumers could “crack the code to younger acting skin”.
L’Oreal Paris Youth Code ads also prominently featured and relied upon a bar graph labelled “Clinical Study”, which purported to show that the products targeted specific genes to make skin act younger and respond five times faster to “aggressors” such as stress and fatigue.
The FTC alleged that the Clinical Study did not in fact involve tests on the relevant products or their ingredients. Instead, the FTC said, L’Oreal had only evaluated gene expression – the process by which genes produce protein – in younger and older groups of men and concluded that the expression of certain genes was delayed in aged skin. Whilst such findings are interesting – they could not be said, the FTC commented, to clearly support L’Oreal’s advertising promises at the centre of the FTC challenge.
The FTC therefore charged that L’Oreal made false and unsubstantiated claims that its Genifique and Youth Code products provided anti-aging benefits by targeting users’ genes. Summing up the view of the FTC, Jessica Rich Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection commented: “It would be nice if cosmetics could alter our genes and turn back time… But L’Oreal couldn’t support these claims”.
The resulting proposed “administrative settlement” agreed between the FTC and L’Oreal broadly prohibits L’Oreal from making such product claims unless they are scientifically proven. It also prohibits L’Oreal from making unsubstantiated gene-related claims. L’Oreal released the following statement about the settlement:
“The proposed agreement imposes no monetary penalties and expressly states that L’Oreal USA does not admit any improper advertising practices…..the claims at issue in this agreement have not been used for some time now, as the company constantly refreshes its advertising. The safety, quality and effectiveness of the company’s products was never in question.”
Why this matters:
The proposed settlement serves as a cautionary reminder that health and beauty product claims are coming under increasing scrutiny, and this applies on both sides of the Atlantic. Whilst L’Oreal USA did not admit any improper practices and the settlement means that no conclusive adjudication has been arrived at as to the veracity of the claims in question, the case underlines the need for particular care to be taken if health or beauty product claims are said to be clinically proven.