ToxicWhoopsy daisy.

Better Life, a maker of home cleaning products, recently ran evocative comparative video ads with a product demonstration to grab consumers’ attention and gain share. It’s a common enough advertising strategy, but one that Better Life in this case should have nipped in the bud, according to NAD.

The ads featured a time-lapse demonstration in which gerbera daisies were placed inside Better Life All Purpose Cleaner and in four other household cleaning products, including Windex®. During a sped-up 24-hour period, consumers watched as the daisies in the other four cleaning products tragically wilted and died, while the daisy in Better Life’s cleaner thrived. Beneath the video appeared this message: “Amazing things happen when you take the toxins out of the household cleaners.”

S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc. (SCJ), the maker of Windex® and other cleaning products, did not like to be tagged as a flower killer along with a germ killer, so it turned to the National Advertising Division (NAD). SCJ argued that the video denigrated and disparaged Windex® by falsely suggesting that it is toxic and harmful to consumers.

NAD agreed. It determined that the video conveyed two messages, both of which were unsubstantiated. NAD recommended that Better Life discontinue the video and either discontinue or modify certain similar claims that appeared in a chart on Better Life’s site.

First, NAD indicated that the video conveyed the message that the daisies in the other cleaning products had been killed by the products’ toxicity, and that Better Life’s cleaner is less biologically harmful to living things (like a flower) because of its “natural” (i.e., nontoxic) ingredients. NAD ultimately held that Better Life failed to provide a reasonable basis for this message, concluding that the demonstration did not produce sufficiently reliable evidence of a difference in toxicity among the products and that Better Life failed to present any scientific evidence that would otherwise explain the different reactions in the flowers.

Second, NAD determined that Better Life’s video reasonably communicated the message that competing products, including SCJ’s Windex®, are “toxic” and create potential safety problems for consumers, and that Better Life’s cleaner is much safer. NAD likewise held that this comparative safety claim was unsubstantiated. In particular, NAD rejected Better Life’s argument that it was safer because Windex® Multisurface Cleaner is registered with EPA as a pesticide and thus must include certain warning statements on its label. NAD determined that EPA as part of its registration process had reviewed the potential health and environmental effects of the product and concluded that it was safe. NAD also rejected Better Life’s argument that it was safer because Windex® is an antimicrobial disinfectant that is specifically designed both to clean and to kill certain bacteria. NAD concluded that the fact that Windex® is an antimicrobial product does not constitute reliable evidence that it poses a greater risk to consumers than Better Life.

In its analysis, NAD also took issue with the comparative demonstration more generally. It noted that, contrary to NAD precedent, the demonstration in Better Life’s daisy video was not conducted under consumer-relevant conditions, and there was no evidence that the results were in fact representative of a real health or safety difference between the products.

Aside from challenging the video, SCJ also challenged a comparative ingredient chart that appeared on Better Life’s website. The chart listed ingredients of “possible concern” that are found in competing cleaning products but not in Better Life’s All Purpose Cleaner. The chart contained the following claims:

  • Dyes – “Have been linked to cancer.”
  • Alcohol – “Respiratory and skin irritant.”
  • Synthetic Fragrance – “Toxic.”
  • Sulfates – “May contain 1, 4-Dioxane, a possible carcinogen.”
  • Ethoxylates – “Linked to cancer and sterility.”

Because the chart stated that competitive products have potentially dangerous ingredients but Better Life does not, NAD determined that the chart reasonably conveyed the message that the competing products are more harmful than Better Life’s products or are otherwise unsafe.

NAD concluded that Better Life failed to provide a reasonable basis for the claim that the products with the identified ingredients posed greater health or safety risks than Better Life’s product. In NAD’s view, none of Better Life’s evidence—from general articles and studies to anecdotal evidence of consumer injuries—reliably showed that any of the cleaning products in the chart contained the listed ingredients in a quantity that gave rise to the “possible concerns” when used as directed.

This case serves as a reminder that advertisers must be sure to substantiate all their advertising claims, especially where the claims are comparative and use evocative product demonstrations, as these claims are particularly likely to draw competitor challenges. Put another way, if you don’t have the data to back up all express and implied claims, it won’t be long before those claims are pushing up daisies.