A poster claimed powerfully that a clear majority of the UK’s dentists recommended Colgate. How robust was the supporting data and was there another fatal flaw? Anna Montes reports the Advertising Standards Authority’s ruling.
Topic: Health and beauty
Who: Colgate-Palmolive (UK) Limited
When: January 2007
The headline for a poster campaign advertising Colgate toothpaste declared "More than 80% Of Dentists recommend Colgate" and "Colgate, used and recommended by most dentists". The Advertising Standards Authority ("ASA") received two complaints regarding the poster, namely that the claim "More than 80% Of Dentists recommend Colgate" misleadingly implied dentists recommended Colgate over all other toothpastes. The ASA itself challenged whether the claim also misleadingly implied professional endorsement of the product concerned by dentists.
Colgate-Palmolive (UK) Ltd's ("Colgate") response to these allegations was that they did not believe the claim was misleading or inappropriate as it referred to the Colgate brand as a whole (which consists of a range of products, mainly classed as cosmetic rather than medicinal) and the product featured in the ad, Colgate Total Advanced Fresh, was not a licensed medicinal product.
It appears that when commissioning research into the use of their product, Colgate instructed a research agency to survey dentists and hygienists on a wide range of subjects each year and all dentists and hygienists took part in the survey voluntarily. Participants were apparently made aware that the survey results might be used for a variety of reasons by Colgate, including use within advertising materials. Colgate maintained the view that the survey results supported the claim made within the posters and to support their case a copy of the survey questions and results were provided to the ASA for their consideration.
The ASA's adjudication:
The ASA did not share Colgate's convictions and it upheld both complaints against the poster campaign. It was the view of the ASA that the claim "More than 80% Of Dentists recommend Colgate" would be understood by readers to mean that 80% of dentists recommended Colgate over and above other brands and the remaining 20% of dentists would recommend different brands rather than Colgate. This is indeed a reasonable interpretation of the claim. However, this is not a question that the research survey actually asked dentists. What the survey asked for in part was for dentists to recommend several toothpastes and brands, not just a single choice. The survey results were therefore not as clear cut as the poster statement would lead readers to believe particularly as another competitor's brand was recommended by dentists almost as much as the Colgate brand was! It was therefore held by the ASA that the claim misleadingly implied 80% of dentists recommended Colgate toothpastes in preference to all other brands of toothpaste when this was not the case.
As far as the ASA's own compliant was concerned, namely that the claim misleadingly implied professional endorsement by dentists, the ASA criticised the fact that the scripts used for the market research survey (which was carried out by telephone), whilst they stated that the research was being performed by an independent market research company and that the research aimed to assess hygienists' and dentists' attitudes towards dental products, did not make it sufficiently clear that the research was being conducted on behalf of Colgate or that the results could be used for advertising purposes. The ASA's view was therefore that the claim implied professional endorsement of the whole Colgate brand when interviewees' written permission had not obtained in relation to such an implication. Therefore the claim made by Colgate breached the CAP Code. Furthermore, four of the Colgate branded toothpastes referred to in the survey were licensed medicinal products for which endorsement by health professionals was prohibited in any event.
Colgate were told not to repeat the claim in any further advertisements and the ASA served them with a reminder that it is a breach of CAP Code to use health professionals to endorse products classified as medicines. All in all, the poster was held to have breached CAP Code clauses 3.1 (Substantiation), 7.1 (Truthfulness), 14.5 (Testimonials) and 50.17 (Endorsement of medicines).
Why this matters:
This matter has acted as a good reminder for all advertisers and their agencies that data and information such as market research surveys should not be distorted or given a positive spin to provide a catchy headline when a statement made cannot be substantiated or is not sufficiently authorised.
Any statement made must be capable of substantiation and must not be misleading. Any inappropriate or vague interpretation of statistics and survey results could also lead to a claim being deemed untruthful as was the case with the Colgate claims. As clause 7.1 of the CAP Code states, no claim must mislead whether through inaccuracy, ambiguity, exaggeration, omission or otherwise. If the evidence does not support a claim then another claim should be devised!
Furthermore, if an advertiser wants to use testimonials of any sort then it must be remembered that testimonials should relate to the product being advertised and references to tests, trials or professional endorsements should only be used with the permission of those concerned.
There is also the important point that professional endorsement of licensed medicines in advertising, no matter how accurately presented, is forbidden by the CAP Code and the law.
Negative PR could be suffered by Colgate as a result news articles reporting to the fact their campaign has been found to be "untruthful" by the ASA and negative PR always serves as a reminder that it is important to stick by the rules…..