December 29, 2004
Advertisers Have Concern for Truth, Especially of Rivals' Claims
OST people do not think much about truth in advertising, especially when so many ads have so little to do with fact - like the commercials for "The Most Relaxing Classical Album in the World ... Ever!"
But Anheuser-Busch has shown an interest in ad accuracy lately, challenging commercials from not one but two other brewers as misleading.
Its complaints prompted Coors Brewing to pull certain spots promoting Aspen Edge and persuaded ABC, CBS and NBC to stop running some TV commercials for Miller Lite and Miller Genuine Draft. The Miller spots featured consumers comparing beers and said the Miller beers had more flavor. Anheuser-Busch said the results were flawed.
The bickering over beer commercials shines a spotlight on marketers' concern for truth in advertising, particularly when it comes to their competitors. Although most consumers would not know it, companies frequently snipe at each other over accuracy in little-publicized but potentially important disputes when they think their interests are at stake.
"Most advertising is very truthful," said Michael J. Owens, vice president for sales and marketing at Anheuser-Busch, which sells brands like Budweiser, Bud Light and Michelob Ultra. "When you start to see this in our industry, yeah, we're concerned, and we will challenge everybody every day of the week."
Executives at Miller and Coors said their commercials were not misleading.
The National Advertising Review Council in New York, an industry group, has completed more than 140 investigations about advertising this year. The Council of Better Business Bureaus and three ad industry trade groups formed the review council in 1971 primarily to address consumer and government concerns.
But now three-quarters of the complaints it hears come from marketers, said James R. Guthrie, president and chief executive at the council.
"I care deeply about the perception and the reality of truth in advertising," Mr. Guthrie said. "Right now we are seeing more turbulence in those seas."
The challengers are not always successful. Procter & Gamble, the nation's biggest-spending advertiser, recently lost a challenge to Colgate-Palmolive over dish soap commercials.
The National Advertising Division of the council, where a staff of seven lawyers investigates ad claims brought to its attention, said Colgate-Palmolive had backed up its claim that Palmolive Oxy-Plus "blasts away grease faster" than Procter's Ultra Dawn.
Procter had better luck earlier this year, when it asked the advertising division to knock down GlaxoSmithKline's assertion that Super PoliGrip had the "strongest hold ever." The division agreed that there was no evidence to support the claim; GlaxoSmithKline said it had already decided to stop using it.
The gallery of corporate challengers this year also included AT&T, Aventis Pharmaceuticals, Church & Dwight, General Motors, Gillette, Pfizer, Playtex Products, Verizon Communications and Wyeth Consumer Healthcare.
Although consumers complain to the division less than marketers, they initiate some investigations. On Dec. 8, the division validated a consumer challenge of ads for a cancer treatment that claimed, "Chemotherapy doesn't work for anybody."
Decisions by the division are recommendations and can be appealed to another unit of the review council. But the council refers marketers that do not win appeals or do not ultimately comply with the recommendation to the Federal Trade Commission for government scrutiny.
There are limits to what can be challenged, though, including sizable protections for puffery - that is, a statement of opinion with little or no reference to demonstrable facts.
"The Most Relaxing Classical Album in the World ... Ever" thrives in this category, said Ivan L. Preston, professor emeritus at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Protection for puffery stems from legal precedents that go back to 1853, as well as from the sense that most people ignore such entirely unverifiable claims, he said.
In June, for example, the National Advertising Division decided that ads for Hunt's tomato products, sold by ConAgra Foods, could say, "Only the best tomatoes grow up to be Hunt's," because the statement qualified as "nonactionable puffery."
Consumers actually have a variety of responses to puffery, Mr. Preston argued. "My concern is that some people are going to treat these types of claims as true and something they can rely on."
Other marketers avoid truth challenges by building brand identities around aspiration or identification. Practitioners of this school include Nike, with its "Just Do It" slogan; Sprint, with "Business Is Beautiful;" and the United States Army, with "An Army of One."
In criticizing the Miller and Coors commercials, Anheuser-Busch asserted that that they had made specific, unsubstantiated taste claims.
Bob Mikulay, senior vice president for marketing at Miller, part of SAB Miller, said in a memorandum to distributors, "The networks were not commenting on our taste claims themselves, but merely saying that some of the commercials could be misinterpreted as making additional claims." The Miller spots were created by Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide in New York, part of the WPP Group.
One network, Fox, did not respond to Anheuser-Busch's complaint.
Kabira Hatland, a spokeswoman at Coors in Golden, Colo., part of the Adolph Coors Company, defended the accuracy of the Coors commercials, which were created by the Marina del Rey, Calif., office of Deutsch, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies.
Coors decided to pull the spots - several versions of the same basic commercial - after word of the challenge by Anheuser-Busch began spreading, not because the spots were false, Ms. Hatland said. "We just don't want to end up in a pointless and distracting debate with A.B. about ads that have already served their purpose," she said.