Unilever is taking the commercial personally because hydrogen peroxide and baking soda, whose combined benefits are questioned in the Crest spot, are unique to Mentadent toothpaste from Unilever's Chesebrough-Pond's unit.
Introduced last October with more than $60 million in marketing support and the American Dental Association's seal of approval, Mentadent has torn into the $1.2billion toothpaste market, posting more than an estimated 9% share in November and December.
Although P&G's spot from D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York, does not mention Mentadent by name, there's little doubt where P&G is leading viewers. The commercial has caused a stir among everyone from competitors to retailers to financial analysts.
Chesebrough executives would not comment, but executives familiar with the dispute say the Unilever division is filing complaints with the ADA and the TV networks.
An ADA spokesman acknowledged the competitive dust-up.
"We are aware of [the complaint] and know it's coming," said the spokesman, noting the ADA stands behind the Mentadent seal of approval. "We are confidant there will be a fair and equitable settlement for all parties involved."
CBS-TV is evaluating the claims and looking into the dispute, a spokesman said. The network will continue running the spot until the matter is settled. The commercial is also running on ABC and NBC.
The controversial spot, narrated by a patient quoting his dentist, positions Tartar Control Crest as the "dentist's choice" to fight tartar buildup and slams peroxide and baking soda as ineffective "tartar fighting ingredients." The final knock is that the formula is "not proven to do anything special for your gums either."
"We were surprised," said one competitor, referring to the hard-hitting nature of the commercial that some fear might also cause consumers to question the efficacy of baking soda alone, a hot toothpaste segment.
One financial analyst observed: "You'll notice P&G did not include its baking soda version of Tartar Control Crest in the commercial."
Some speculate that decision may have been a strategic move out of fear that Chesebrough, with the help of Lintas, may be planning a Mentadent variant more directly competitive to Tartar Control Crest.
Indeed, P&G appears to be positioning itself against another Chesebrough toothpaste already, indicating competition between the two is likely to escalate further in coming months.
P&G is now testing Crest Icy Clean paste and Icy Fresh gel in Louisiana. Viewed as replacements for Crest Mint paste and Cool Mint Gel, the products target younger consumers whom Chesebrough began chasing last year with its launch of Crystal CloseUp.