How did a school science experiment lead to the world’s second largest food and drug company appearing in the Auckland District Court over “four times the vitamin C of oranges” ad claims? Anna Montes reports.
When: Mach 2007
Where: New Zealand
Something you do not hear about every day….two 14 year-old school girls in New Zealand have become infamous in the drinks industry after exposing the true contents of Ribena products following a school science project! Their research project findings led pharmaceutical and food giant GlaxoSmithKline ("GSK") accepting 15 charges of misleading advertising regarding claims made in respect of some of its Ribena products.
In 2004 the two school girls were given a project at school to test the hypothesis that cheaper drink brands were less healthy than their more expensive rivals. GSK's Ready to Drink Ribena available in cartons claimed the product contained 7mg of vitamin C per 100ml. However after testing the vitamin contents of this product and its rivals, the girls found that it had no detectable vitamin C content at all. Furthermore, despite GSK's advertising stating that "the blackcurrants in Ribena contain four times the vitamin C of oranges" their project results also revealed that another brand's orange juice drink contained almost four times more vitamin C than the Ribena they tested.
After testing the products a number of times to check they had not simply conducted the experiment incorrectly, the girls found that of all the products tested, all contained more vitamin C than they claimed except for Ribena. They took their results to Ribena for comment but allegedly received little feedback or interest from GSK. Their claims were then noted by a TV consumer affairs programme in New Zealand called "Fair Go" which suggested they take their findings to the Commerce Commission (a government watchdog in New Zealand).
The Commerce Commission investigated the matter further and found that although blackcurrants generally do have more vitamin C than oranges, this was not true in the case of Ribena. It also confirmed that Ready to Drink Ribena contained no detectable level of vitamin C and therefore brought the matter to court. GSK was therefore required to face 15 charges for breaches of the Fair Trading Act. Following the hearing and GSK's acceptance of the charges, the Auckland District Court fined GSK the sum of NZ$217,500 which equates to approximately £80,800. The fines could have been as much as NZ$3 million. GSK was also required to place half page corrective advertisements in two Saturday editions of major newspapers over a four week period to bring its errors to the public's attention. The Commerce Commission expressed satisfaction with these results and in press statements have made it clear that one of their priorities has been to investigate such "bogus health claims".
On 27 March 2007, GSK Consumer Healthcare issued a media statement on their Ribena website in New Zealand in respect to the charges brought against them. With regard to the claim that the blackcurrants in Ribena contain "four times the Vitamin C of oranges", GSK states that this is a factually correct claim when the fruits are judged on a weight by weight basis. They admitted that they did however accept the Commission's view that this statement had the potential to mislead "some customers". They confirmed that the removal of the statement from their packaging and advertising across the whole Ribena range was to avoid any further misunderstanding on the part of consumers. GSK also wanted to stress to the public that only its Ready to Drink products were affected by the Commerce Commission's concerns about the vitamin C content information issued and until the investigation by the Commission had commenced, GSK claimed it had been unaware that there was any issue with the information available on such products. GSK wanted to reassure its consumers that it had since revised all advertising to ensure there were no claims in regard to vitamin C that could potentially mislead, all Ribena Ready to Drink labels had been modified so no reference to vitamin C remains and they have implemented new plan to reformulate their Ready to Drink products with new vitamin C testing methods.
GSK must have also realised the level of media attention this matter was attracting and so it has sought to make it clear within the press that the concerns about vitamin C content only affected some of its products available in the Australian and New Zealand markets and that testing has confirmed that Ribena drinks available in all other markets contain the stated levels of vitamin C described on their product labels.
Why this matters:
To admit that your packaging information has been incorrect for some time and that consumers have been misled is certainly something a manufacturer would want to avoid for a number of reasons but particularly for PR reasons! Apart from the large fines that can be received for incorrect and misleading health claims, advertisers can incur more substantial damage through the corrective measures they need to undertake in terms of PR exercises, re-packaging and the creation of new advertising with corrected messages. Furthermore, the advertiser can be left quite damaged in the eyes of consumers and credibility is something that gives advertisers a head start in a competitive market. This matter acts as a word of warning to advertisers to ensure they know exactly what claims they can and cannot make in their advertising and to ensure claims are always substantiated. Also, where products are reformulated over the years it should be ensured that packaging information is updated each time the associated product is.