P&G finds aggression has a price

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After years of losing market share in categories such as oral care and feminine care, Procter & Gamble Co. has reversed fortune, growing sales faster than most major competitors in the past year. But aggressive ad efforts behind the gains have sparked a growing wave of competitor challenges-and third parties have found some of the claims false or misleading.

A federal jury in New York late last month awarded $2.96 million to Tampax rival Playtex Products in a false-advertising suit. The Tampax verdict came within 10 days of two rulings from the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus that asked for modification of ads for the company's Thermacare heat wraps and Crest Whitestrips. Those followed an NAD recommendation in February that P&G discontinue an Always ad.

unusual rate

Four ad-claim challenges in less than five months is unusual for P&G, which was the subject of only four NAD decisions through all of 2002 and five during the entire three-year period ending in 2001. Before the Playtex suit, P&G hadn't been a defendant in a high-profile false-advertising lawsuit in at least a decade.

"We're doing what we've always done, which is to develop advertising that ensures we're communicating the superior benefits of P&G brands," said a P&G spokeswoman. "We continue to be confident in our claims support process, and we apply rigor and discipline to the claims we make."

competition

New brands or brands with significant product innovation are more likely to have ad claims that provoke challenges, she said, which may account for some of the increase. "Our brands are winning in an incredibly competitive marketplace," the spokeswoman said. "This [claim challenge] activity reflects competition reacting to our market success."

P&G is appealing the NAD's findings on Always, and intends to appeal the Tampax court decision. The court on May 30 ordered P&G to stop claiming that Tampax Pearl is superior to Playtex Gentle Glide tampons, and told P&G to recall any packaging or retail displays that make such claims. P&G has already started complying with the injunction, a spokesman said, adding that Pearl packages don't contain any superiority claims, but some displays do.

In the Thermacare and Whitestrips cases, the NAD found P&G substantiated key claims but still recommended the ads be modified or discontinued based on other potentially misleading claims or demonstrations.

For instance, P&G sufficiently supported its claim that Whitestrips whitens five times better than rival Colgate-Palmolive Co.'s Simply White, the NAD found. But it added that P&G's "unfairly and falsely denigrated" Simply White in an ad that showed a woman talking through a forced smile and claimed most of the product would wash off in two minutes if she stopped smiling. P&G disagreed with NAD findings in both the Thermacare and Whitestrip cases but said it would take the views into account in future ads.

Most P&G ads are never challenged, and P&G wins most cases where they are, the spokeswoman said. "In a very few cases, our claims are not found to be substantiated, and that is disappointing."

Though guidelines call for rivals to refrain from discussing matters pending before the NAD, P&G may face more disputes before the year is out.

A spokesman for Georgia-Pacific Corp. said the company is weighing options regarding recent ads for P&G's Bounty paper towels, including one that shows a wet Bounty towel holding a bowling ball. The demonstrations are literally accurate, but don't reflect how consumers usually use the product, said Rob Lorys, VP-marketing of Georgia-Pacific.

"The demos were meant to demonstrate our superior wet strength and absorbency in kind of a fun and memorable way," another P&G spokeswoman said. "Granted, people don't use a paper towel to hold a bowling ball. But the idea is to open consumers' minds to ways the product can be used."

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