In China, an ad for a Crest whitening toothpaste showed a popular talk show host worrying about how her teeth would look during a magazine cover shoot. So she brushed with Crest, and -- voilà -- her teeth were ready for the cover of Cosmo. The commercial promised whiter teeth in "just one day."
Chinese regulatory authorities took issue with the ad and fined Crest about $963,000 for false advertising – a sum that state media said was the highest ever for such a case.
On its microblog account, the Shanghai Administration for Industry and Commerce said the color of Taiwanese star Dee Hsu's teeth had been "excessively modified by computer editing software." The ad spotlighted Crest MICA toothpaste and also the brand's 3D White Luxe Whitestrips. (Watch the spot here.)
In a statement, Crest stressed that the products had no quality problems and said the issue was not having been "precise" enough in how the products were depicted in the commercial.
The brand also apologized: "Providing consumers with quality oral care products is our constant commitment," it said. "We will continue to strive to do better." The statement said the ad went off the air in August, suggesting Crest had been aware of the issue since then. It was not clear why the news came out now, but the annual Consumer Rights Day is coming up Sunday, and it's a time when multinationals in China from Apple to Volkswagen have been singled out for criticism.
Tougher ad standards ahead
For many years, advertisers in China were relatively free to make big claims about their products as the country developed rapidly and multinational brands rushed in to court the fast-growing middle class. In 2005, things took a turn when authorities raised questions about several P&G claims about its brands, such as that Pantene made hair 10 times stronger.
The past decade has brought new measures protecting consumers, and China is now preparing to toughen up the law that governs the ad industry. The proposals being discussed by the National People's Congress would tighten restrictions on how products from tobacco to real estate can be advertised.
The suggested changes would restrict how brands can target children; ads can't encourage children to ask their parents to buy them something, for example. Other changes apply to celebrity endorsers, who could be held legally responsible if they knowingly plug a bad product. Pitchmen would also be required to try the items they're touting. That measure has everyone asking what will happen to the male pop star who endorses a brand of sanitary pads.
What consumers think
Talking about Crest on social media, some consumers said they would stop using the brand, while others mentioned categories from pesticides to skin-whitening creams that merited attention from authorities. Many posts used the recent buzzword "duang," a term coined by actor and eternal product pitchman Jackie Chan that can describe special effects used in ads, for example to make hair look shinier and blacker in shampoo commercials. (Over-the-top ad claims are a frequent topic of conversation in China.)
There were also jokes poking fun of other brands' commercials, such as ads for Dove chocolate that depict its smooth texture with the image of a woman getting enveloped in a silk scarf. "You can't believe commercials," Weibo user Su Rurui wrote in a Weibo microblog post. "Does a silk scarf surround you when you eat Dove? Do flower blossoms appear behind you when you use a sanitary pad? Do you fly into the sky after you drink soda?"