Szuhaj: Deceit in Advertising

by Ben Szuhaj | 4/20/16 5:42pm

It’s getting hot in Hanover. And as the temperature rises, so does the number of people wearing sunglasses, boat shoes, salmon shorts and, you would hope, sunblock. Unfortunately, a 2013 survey reviewed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that a minority of respondents, only 14.3 percent of men and 29.9 percent of women, regularly use sunscreen on their face and other exposed skin. Those of us who both buy and apply sunblock on a regular basis will know that the drug store has a whole litany of options available when it comes to lathering up before going outside.

Many products try to differentiate themselves from the competition by claiming higher SPF protection or other skin-saving properties. In reality, SPF doesn’t matter past a certain point. In terms of UVB rays absorbed, the difference between SPF 30 and 50 is less than 2 percent. And yet, the fact that companies make and market sunblocks that provide statistically insignificant increases in sun protection must mean there is a demand for them. The claim “100 SPF!” written in bold letters is akin to Colgate’s “OPTIC WHITE” or Crest’s “GLAMOROUS WHITE.” All of the adjectives have no basis in science to back up their effectiveness, and yet, somehow, product names such as “optic white” seem to suggest a toothpaste better at teeth whitening than the more prosaic “whitening toothpaste.”

The use of suggestive adjectives in advertising is most egregious in the aisles of the grocery store. Take, for instance, Odwalla, which claims that its fruit smoothies are “100% juice/purée blend.” Its “Original Superfood Fruit Smoothie” (the green one) boosts a whopping 51 grams of sugar per 15.2 fluid ounce bottle. The sugar content is comparable to that of Coke which contains 59 grams of sugar per 16 fluid ounces. And yes, Odwalla might claim all that sugar is from fruit, but the juice itself contains none of the fiber of the original ingredients. Essentially, Odwalla has taken the otherwise humble fruit, squeezed out any derivable health benefit, bottled the sugary fruit liquid and sold it back to us at an exorbitant price. And they can, because words like “superfood” and “smoothie” are unregulated. Companies can use them freely despite the connotations carried by these terms.

It doesn’t stop there. “Nutritious” and “healthy” are also claims that product manufacturers and suppliers are allowed to make even if they lack the numbers to back them. Additionally, companies can include “data,” such as numbers and figures, on their product’s packaging if they are citing certain studies. Kellog recently settled a class action lawsuit after claiming that their Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal improved kids ability to focus by 20 percent. In reality, they were rounding up from 11 percent, and the control group of children in that study weren’t given any breakfast at all, a fact which, aside from being cruel, seems more to endorse the concept of eating something — anything — for breakfast, rather than the magical properties of Frosted Minis.

Perhaps the final stroke of corruption in this chain of falsifiable health claims is the funding of dietary studies by the very companies examined in those studies. A few weeks ago, the University of Maryland disavowed the result of a study which claimed that Fifth Quarter Fresh chocolate milk helped high school football players to recover faster both physically and mentally from exertion, and from the effects of concussions. Fifth Quarter Fresh, which claims its milk comes from “super, natural cows,” paid nearly $230,000 to fund the study. While this study was found to be blatantly flawed, it is still legal to fund scientific studies conducted by the producer of a given product on the effects or benefits of that same product. It brings into question the validity of “delicious, nutritious, bone-strengthening milk.”

And that’s really where the problem lies. Those three claims, “delicious,” “nutritious” and “bone-strengthening,” should not be held to the same low level of scrutiny. Yes, you’re allowed to lie in advertising, but only as long as you are putting forth an opinion. To you, the producer, your milk is “delicious.” “Nutritious” is the middle level, where opinion borders fact. “Nutritious” is nebulous, difficult to pin to an exact definition. So an increasing number of products, including cookies and sugary breakfast cereals, can get away with using it. But that final claim, “bone-strengthening,” suggests a definite cause and effect between drinking milk and strengthening bones. A producer can include those types of claims as long as they include a minuscule asterisk and the disclaimer that often goes unread: “these statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.”

In the end, it isn’t about whether or not milk strengthens your bones, or if cereal helps you concentrate or any of those other claims. It’s about misleading the consumer who has a desire to remain in good health, who spends money on a product, but does not gain the value they expect and has now wasted money that could have been spent elsewhere.