Marketers and sales activities routinely make all sorts of claims. As consumers, we encounter claims every day on items such as product packages, product labels, advertisements, sales brochures, public relations materials, billboards, point of sale materials, and other locations.
Across these many locations, different types of claims require different types of data for substantiation. Some claims can be substantiated by engineering or scientific data, such as the number of seconds it takes a car to accelerate from zero to sixty, the hard drive capacity of a new computer, or the square footage of an apartment. Such claims are measured relatively objectively, using standard units of measurement such as seconds, gigabytes, and feet.
Measurements are relatively objective because even if the units of measurement are standard, sometimes how those units are presented leaves interpretation up to the consumer. For example, does the square footage of an apartment reflect only that particular apartment, or does it also include an allocation for common areas, such as elevators and stairwells? Do the gas mileage ratings of a car reflect the actual mileage an average driver can expect to receive, or rather mileage in specific situations or certain conditions?
Questions about the interpretation of claims can be simple, but have complex answers. For many authorities who adjudicate such matters, the answer to the question should focus on what the statement means to the average consumer. Claim substantiation surveys can provide key evidence and support.
Other claims require non-scientific, subjective data, based on consumer attitudes and perceptions about the taste or performance or quality of a product. For example, which peanut butter tastes crunchiest? Which yogurt is preferred by children? Which shampoo leaves your hair most shiny? Which skin lotion has the most appealing scent? These questions are often answered not with engineering tests, but rather with substantiation surveys in which consumers try and rate products.
A wide range of agencies and authorities have a say, either directly or indirectly, in making sure that claims have substantiation. For example, a company that makes claims may find that it needs to substantiate or defend claims in the federal court system, or before agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration or the Federal Trade Commission. The Better Business Bureau operates a voluntary entity, called the National Advertising Division, which allows companies to resolve disputes in a system that can be faster, less adversarial, and easier than federal court.
In short, claim substantiation matters. Here are examples of some high-profile claim substantiation cases that have appeared in the news recently. The examples demonstrate the obligations of marketers to clearly communicate facts backed by real evidence, and show how disputes can arise regarding what a statement means to the average consumer.
- Do certain foods provide health benefits? Lately, many food manufacturers have made claims related to the health content of the foods they make. For example, some foods claim to improve brain health, reduce cholesterol, provide essential vitamins, lower sodium, enhance digestion, or provide other benefits. As food marketers have increasingly seen “functional foods” as an opportunity and a priority, regulators at agencies such as the FDA and the FTC have taken more interest, as have the competitors of companies making claims. Click for The New York Times article.
- How much skin protection does sunscreen provide? For a simple product, sunscreen can be complicated for consumers at the retail shelf. There is a wide range of sunscreens on the market, positioned for uses such as a day at the beach, outdoor sports, swimming, everyday protection, protection for children, and others. After 33 years, the FDA recently established new rules to clearly define the testing protocols that can support certain types of claims. Along the way, familiar words such as “sunblock”, “waterproof”, and “sweatproof” have been banned. Click for The New York Times article.
- Does water prevent dehydration? The answer to this seemingly simple question has been quite complicated in Europe. The European Commission was asked if makers of bottled water could claim on their label statements including that “regular consumption of significant amounts of water can reduce the risk of development of dehydration. The European Foods Standard Authority concluded that the statement was misleading, in part because having too little water in the body “was a symptom of dehydration and not something that drinking water could subsequently control.” The dispute hinges upon consumer perceptions, such as whether the statement suggests that bottled water provides special benefits against dehydration. Click for The Telegraph article.
- Which wireless carrier has the best coverage? In the United States, AT&T and Verizon have spent millions of dollars on advertising that discusses which company’s coverage is best and how its coverage compares to the other carrier. For example, Verizon ran a series of commercials called “There’s a Map for That”; AT&T argued that the commercials unfairly depicted AT&T’s coverage. Much of the dispute hinged on considerations of what claims consumers inferred from the commercials. Click for The New York Times article.
- Who has the best riding mowers? Last year, Sears found itself trailing rivals such as Home Depot in the important category of garden care and home repair. They decided to fight back by providing reasons for consumers to shop at Sears rather than Home Depot or Lowes. Such “comparative ads” are increasingly commonplace in the marketplace, as companies directly tell consumers the reasons why they should shop them rather than offshore merchant account their rivals. Click for The New York Times article.
Dr. Bruce Isaacson
MMR Strategy Group