Consumer reports has been testing products for 75 years, and for just as long it's refused to accept ads and told marketers not to cite its test results in ads.
But Reckitt Benckiser has apparently been violating the policy with impunity since late last year, and far from bowing to any pressure to stop, last month began obliquely citing CR test results for a second category and brand.
One apparent reason: The strategy works.
After RB in November began referring in TV ads to results showing its Finish Quantum dishwashing detergent beating rival Procter & Gamble Co.'s category-leading Cascade in testing by experts from a "leading consumer publication," the brand's overall market share in automatic dish detergent is up dramatically: 4.4 points to 24.6% for the 12 weeks ended Aug. 7 vs. a year ago, per SymphonyIRI.
The CR test , which ran in the magazine's September 2010 issue, came at a particularly crucial time for the category. As industry players removed phosphates due to environmental concerns, consumer complaints about cleaning performance went up. News reports about the complaints also have cited Finish Quantum's CR test results.
Several bloggers also referred to Finish Quantum coming out No. 1 in tests by a leading consumer publication in November, the same time the ads broke. That round of Finish ads ended in May after a six-month rotation. Then last month, RB began running similar ads for one of its Resolve Spray & Wash products. The ads said the product topped other stain removers, specifically comparing its results to SCJohnson's Shout, and again citing testing by a "leading consumer publication."
RB's turnaround was about a month faster this time, with ads breaking in August, just on the heels of the July 2011 CR review.
A spokeswoman for RB declined to comment, citing potential legal issues. And neither the company nor Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, would say whether the two have discussed RB's use of test results in ads.
RB's approach of not actually using the magazine's name doesn't get it off the hook for the no-commercial-use policy, which discourages use of both the name and the information. "We want the reviews of Consumer Reports to be used for the benefit of consumers, not for the benefit of marketers," said Kenneth Weine, VP-communications of Consumer Reports.
Time Warner Cable in 2006 took down references to Consumer Reports test results after using it in ads, he said. Last month, Jenny Craig also used CR test information in national TV ads and immediately removed it when asked.
But why not let marketers use data from an unbiased third party? Wouldn't that actually serve consumers and make ads better?
As CR sees it, test results get filtered through the lens of "salesmanship" in ads, which don't provide the full context. In the case of Resolve Spray & Wash, while one of its products fared best in the recent stain-remover test , the ads don't mention that it's the brand's least-expensive product. Nor do they note that two other newer products priced 50% higher per ounce -- Resolve Max and Resolve Foaming Aerosol Laundry -- fared far worse, ranking 12th and 14th out of 14 products tested by CR.
So what if a marketer refuses to stop using CR test results in ads?
Federal court filings don't show Consumers Union using any legal persuasion against marketers over the policy, at least not dating to 2004. On its website, CR does say it has written about violations of its policy and encouraged consumers to write companies to express disapproval.