Allied Bakeries challenged Hovis’s “softest white” claim in various ads. Hovis had their survey, methodology and results ready when the Advertising Standards Authority came knocking, but did the tests withstand scrutiny? Omar Bucchioni squeezes the loaf.
Who: ASA and Premier Foods Group Ltd t/a Hovis
When: 24 February 2010
Law stated as at: 26 March 2010
Recently, the Advertising Standards Authority received 3 complaints and carried out a formal investigation on the following four ads for Hovis Soft White bread:
a) a poster of a woman's hand placing a slice of white bread into a toaster with the following text next to the image: "VOTED BRITAIN'S SOFTEST WHITE. In taste tests of the leading white bread brands";
b) a magazine ad was the same as ad (a), but included small print stating: "Based on a sample of 216 respondents in Nov/Dec 2008";
c) a leaflet whose headline stated "How Hovis Soft White became Britain's softest". Text underneath stated "… in taste tests amongst the leading white bread brands, Hovis Soft White was voted the softest*". Small print linked to the asterisk stated "based on a sample of 216 respondents in Nov/Dec 2008"; and
d) a promotion in the national press had the headline "SAVE BREAD WITH THE SUN Free Hovis Soft White loaf". Underneath there was a voucher and text stating "In a sample test among leading white bread brands, Hovis Soft White was voted the softest*". Small print linked to the asterisk stated "Based on a sample of 216 respondents in Nov/Dec 2008".
The complaints made by i) Allied Bakeries – a division of ABF Grain Products Ltd; ii) Warburtons Ltd – a Hovis competitor; and iii) a member of the public queried whether the claim that the product had been voted Britain's softest white bread was misleading and could be substantiated.
Premier Foods Group Ltd response
Premier Foods Group Ltd (Premier Foods) believed that the claim was substantiated and submitted a copy of a survey conducted on 216 people by an independent market research company in November 2008, which showed that Hovis was rated significantly softer than other two top white brands which together (the three of them) accounted for over 70% of the pre-packed white bread sold in the UK.
The survey's methodology and data content
• All respondents were asked to try each of the three bread brands over a three-week period (one week for each brand) and rate them via a self-completion questionnaire.
• Respondents also underwent a recall interview at the end of each week and on completion of the trial, where a further blind taste test was carried out on a single slice of each product.
Premier Foods admitted that the flour used in their product at the time the ad appeared was from the new 2009 harvest; however, due to their milling processes Premier Foods believed it had the same characteristics to the flour used in their products at the time the survey was carried out in 2008. By way of a quality assurance process, Premier Foods carried out regular monitoring of the softness of their bread against their competitors' products and this did not indicate any change in the performance of their own or their competitors' products in relation to softness.
The ASA response
The ASA noted that the survey was carried out in November 2008 and that at the time the ad appeared in October 2009 all three breads were made using the new 2009 harvest flour. The ASA therefore could not be certain whether participants would have "voted" differently if the survey had been carried out using the 2009 harvest flour. In addition, the recipe for one of the branded breads involved in the taste test had been changed in February 2009
The ASA also considered the data collected by way of quality assurance process on the softness of the bread and decided that it was not clear from the data on what basis 'softness' was being measured. In addition, the ASA noted that the poster ad did not state that the claim was based on a survey carried out in November 2008 and not on bread currently available to buy.
The ASA went further considering that participants were not only asked to "rate" the softness of the bread on a scale from 1 to 10; but that they had also to directly respond (after trying all the three products) which they liked best for the softness. The majority of respondents did not choose Hovis!
Since participants to the survey did not vote Hovis as the Britain's softest white bread and also since the survey had been carried out on branded breads using a different recipe and harvest flour to those available in store at the time the ad appeared, the ASA concluded that the survey did not substantiate the claims made in the ads and that they were misleading.
Why this matters:
Once again the ASA has shown how fastidious it is in making sure that the requirements for substantiation, truthfulness and other comparisons are met. The ad could no longer appear in its current form. The lesson we can take from this adjudication is that no mater how well a marketing research is designed and carried out by third party market research companies, the brand-owners still need to interpret the results of the research fairly and in relation to products that are actually sold to the public at the time of the ad appeared.
Dr. Omar Bucchioni
Osborne Clarke, London