“Clinically proven…” “Laboratory tested.” “45% More Effective!” Claims like these sell product. They also carry with them the assertion that the advertising claim has been “established” or proven by competent and reliable testing. Establishment claims can be express (e.g., “Studies show…”) or implied (e.g., use of a caduceus or images of actors in lab coats). In all cases, however, they require that a company have the form of substantiation alluded to by the claim and that the touted performance benefit be both statistically and clinically meaningful. The risks for the unprepared advertiser are substantial, and include Lanham Act litigation, competitor-initiated challenges at the National Advertising Division (NAD), regulatory inquiries, consumer class actions, and adverse publicity.
A review of recent advertising cases reveals that most establishment claims that are found to be unsubstantiated are rejected because, although the advertiser had the study referenced by the claim, the advertiser failed to prove that its statistically significant study results were material enough to be meaningful. The elements required to establish that “statistically significant” testing results are “meaningful” can vary based on the product and claim. There are, however, preliminary steps that can be taken to help an establishment claim survive scrutiny, including the following:
- Bridge any differences between the tested and final product formulations. At times, advertisers will develop product claims using testing on individual product ingredients (or a similar product formulation) in lieu of testing on the actual product in commerce. When doing so, it is important to confirm that there is competent and reliable scientific evidence that the product in commerce will perform in the same manner as the ingredients (or combination of ingredients) tested in the underlying study. Upon a challenge, the advertiser will have the burden to confirm that the tested ingredient(s)’ effectiveness is not compromised by the existence of other ingredients in the product. In the absence of bridging evidence, advertising law standards require that product claims either be based on testing of the actual product or limited to the actual ingredient(s) tested (e.g., “x ingredient is proven to…” instead of “x product is proven to…”).
- Narrowly tailor the final claim to the underlying protocol and results. Ensure that the final claim lines up with the testing, and that the form and regularity of product use conveyed by the final claim correlate with the study protocol upon which the claim is based. For example, a single-day study should not be used to make claims about prolonged product performance. Similarly, a study that solely measures product efficacy after repeated product use should not be used to make claims regarding product efficacy after a single application.
- Review the publicly available scientific data regarding product efficacy. A study will be found to be insufficient to substantiate an establishment claim if it contradicts the larger body of evidence regarding the efficacy of a product. Before featuring an establishment claim, companies should compare their study results to other publicly available information regarding product efficacy and, where the two diverge, be prepared to explain why its testing results are more persuasive than contradictory data.
- When using in vitro studies, document why the statistically significant difference is material. Proving materiality can be difficult when attempting to tout differences that are based on in vitro studies or benefits that are not immediately perceptible to humans. In these instances, it is helpful to establish a relationship between the new data and either other studies previously endorsed by regulatory bodies or published, peer-reviewed scientific literature by independent parties, to help confirm that the differences established by the new study are material for consumers. It is also helpful to correlate the study with a mechanism of action of the product that can be more easily understood.
Advertising that a product claim has been proven by well-designed tests is a highly effective way to sell product. But touting a test result will attract the attention of not only consumers, but also competitors and regulators. Attention to the underlying testing will help ensure that advertisers realize the benefit of this compelling form of advertising without incurring substantial and unnecessary risks.