Conservatories and baby wipes were the products in focus in two recent Advertising Standards Authority decisions on superlative claims. We report the verdicts and the lessons at
Topic: Comparative advertising
Who: Cornhill Conservatories and Procter & Gamble UK
Where: The Advertising Standards Authority
When: June/July 2004
Advertisers' claiming their products were of the "highest quality" and providing "the gentlest care" were forced to substantiate their claims by the Advertising Standards Authority ("ASA"). Were any of these claims mere puff or if they had to be substantiated, just what level of proof did the advertisers have to supply to save the claims from censure?
"Highest quality" conservatories claim
In a regional press ad, Cornhill Conservatories of Surrey claimed "although not the cheapest, we sell the highest quality conservatories at realistic and competitive prices."
A competitor challenged the "highest quality" claim.
Cornhill was put to proof of their claim by the ASA. It explained that its window system, glass sealed units and roof system held several British Standard kitemarks and that their window and roof systems were accredited by the British Board of Agrement (Ed: this is not a typo]. It argued that it was not possible to gain higher accreditation than that and sent a booklet and leaflet about various parts of its window system to support the claim.
The ASA was not persuaded. It felt that the "highest quality" claim implied that Cornhill's conservatories were of the highest quality available, in other words of higher quality than any of its competitors. Neither the kitemarks nor the accreditations proved this, so the claim was unjustified and Cornhill was asked to amend it.
Johnson and Johnson complained about a magazine ad for Procter & Gamble's "Pampers Sensitive" baby wipes. The copy in question ran "irresistible skin…. your baby will feel the difference…. Pampers Sensitive wipes were created to make the skin of your baby look and feel irresistible. That's why they are the mildest wipes in Britain, and provide the gentlest care for your baby's skin."
Your baby will feel the difference
Johnson and Johnson challenged "your baby will feel the difference". P&G replied that it was mere puffery: it was of course impossible to measure scientifically the subjective response and feelings that babies may have to different wipes.
Interestingly, the ASA disagreed. It was not to be regarded as mere puff. This was because it appeared in an ad that implicitly compared the advertiser's wipes with those of their competitors by stating "that's why they are the mildest wipes in Britain and provide the gentlest care for your baby's skin." Consumers were likely to interpret the claim as an objective comparison and as the claim had not been proved, it should not be repeated without substantiation. We look forward to seeing the survey of baby opinion!
The mildest wipes in Britain?
P&G sent in the results of 7 tests which they believe substantiated their claims. Johnson & Johnson sent the results of 5 different tests which they believed demonstrated the contrary.
According to the ASA expert, the Pampers product had only been tested against 6 competitors' products. Although P&G sent a market share analysis indicating that this represented 96% of the wipes on the market, the ASA was concerned that 100% of branded wipes on the UK market had not been tested and that some of the tested wipes were unidentified. It also appeared that not all the wipes had been tested in the course of the same trial using the same controls and standards.
In all these circumstances the ASA held that P&G had not proved that their wipes were milder or gentler than those of their competitors or that they were the mildest wipes in Britain. The claims were not to be repeated.
Why this matters:
Superlative claims, however much in the land of puffery the advertiser believes them to be, are always likely to be challenged by competitors and unlikely to be regarded as puffery by the regulators.
"Quality" may be a slippery concept to establish and substantiate, but if a product's quality is claimed to be the highest, then the advertiser must have substantiating evidence in its possession before the ad in question is published. But we wonder whether the same would apply to, say, "of the finest quality."
As regards the Pampers "your baby will feel the difference" claim, the ASA might be regarded as somewhat harsh in its view. What did for it, however, was the fact that it was made in the context of not one but two superlative claims.