GlaxoSmithkline (GSK) and Nestlé were censured last week for making unfounded nutritional claims about their products.
TV ads for GlaxoSmithKline’s Horlicks and Nestlé’s Maggi Noodles shown in the UK included suggestions that the products could make children taller, stronger and more intelligent, and give them more powerful muscles.
The companies were condemned by the Advertising Standards Authority for making the unsubstantiated claims and were banned from showing the ads again. The companies claimed the ads were shown by accident and were intended for audiences in developing markets, not Europe.
The case has brought calls for new global advertising regulations and highlighted some of the extraordinary claims brand owners make for their products in developing countries that they would struggle to get approved in Europe.
The ads were aired by Nepali TV in the UK as part of a rebroadcast deal. Although GSK and Nestlé claim the ads were shown unintentionally, industry observers say they have raised many issues about global advertising.
Baby Milk Action policy director Patty Rundall believes the ASA’s decision to ban the ads shows the need for tougher global ad regulation. “I think it’s outrageous that brands go by individual countries’ standards. There is a global standard for health and this shows the need for internationally agreed advertising standards,” she says.
EU law states that “nutritional and health claims which encourage consumers to purchase a product, but are false, misleading, or not scientifically proven are prohibited.” But neither GSK nor Nestlé demonstrated to the ASA evidence for the claims they made.
The GSK ad for Horlicks shows an experiment where half the children at a boarding school are given Horlicks and the other half an unnamed health drink. Those drinking Horlicks emerge from the test “taller, stronger and sharper”. The ad ends with the line: “The Horlicks challenge, now proven. Now see for yourself”. GSK claims the products sold in Bangladesh are fortified and health claims are supported by studies undertaken by the National Institute of Nutrition in India.
Meanwhile, Nestlé’s ads for Maggi Noodles were found to be misleading by the UK’s Food Standards Agency. The ads feature a mother saying: “Maggi is best because it has essential protein and calcium that help to build strong muscles and bones. There is no comparison… Amazing nutrition!” Graphics show an arm with a yellow glow over the bicep and a knee with a yellow glow over the kneecap.
The FSA said the link between protein and strengthening muscles is “tenuous” because the strengthening is a “complex process and involves a degree of physical activity.” The ASA said it had seen no evidence to support the claim that the calcium content of Maggi Noodles would “help build strong muscles and bones.”
The ASA has used the ruling to promote its own role in the self regulation of UK advertising. A spokesman says: “This ruling shows how strict the UK rules are. Advertisers themselves go by strict rules so the Government doesn’t intervene.”
The ASA says that advertising codes have an “extra layer” in the UK, but they are not so well developed abroad. It adds that brands’ responsibilities were highlighted by last week’s blunder: “It’s a lesson to all advertisers – there is a degree of embarrassment. Companies will hopefully take heed,” says the spokesman.
Some argue against the idea of global ad regulations, saying that different cultures and environments require different approaches. MindShare worldwide head of business planning Marco Rimini says: “If you are having global ideas, you make sure you can show them in every country, so you go for the market with the highest bar. Western Europe and the US drive that.”
Publicis Groupe chief operating officer Richard Pinder concurs. He says: “Yes, there are regulations and it is difficult for advertisers, but it is the same with manufacturers. It would help to have rules in place, but obviously getting the world to agree isn’t possible.”
Ogilvy Group UK vice-chairman Rory Sutherland adds: “In a sense, you have no choice as an advertiser because you work in a competitive environment.” He adds: “It will probably slowly get easier, but standards generally go around the higher end. When you impose high standards in every country, you end up in a communication straight-jacket. If you have an amalgamation of all worldwide brand guidelines, you end up with rules from every single country, including some very bizarre stuff.”
Although the ASA has branded the ads “misleading”, Sunderland argues that food does, in general, make you stronger and healthier. He adds: “It is peculiar in some ways to put standards of accuracy on advertisers that you don’t put on politicians. Free speech, in some form, needs to apply to businesses.”
Marketers agree that different cultures should be approached in different ways. Former Pepsi marketer and interim marketing director Rob Rees says: “The more developed the market, the more need there is for bureaucracy and regulation.”
In the UK, Rees says advertisers such as Nike aim at “higher-end” emotional benefits
with its “Just Do It” strapline. However, he says: “Other markets go for the lower end. That’s what the customer wants.” He adds: “A good diet is taken for granted in this country. We don’t have a problem with food. We’ve gone from sustenance to indulgence.”
Sutherland says it is also possible to have a global strategy and execute it locally. Dove, for example, uses its “real beauty” strategy everywhere. However, its executions and the people it uses vary according to different prejudices in the market. He adds: “The question isn’t what you say, it’s how people interpret what you say. What is extraordinarily insulting in one country might not be in another, and what is misunderstood in one place might not be in another.”
Red Brick Road chief executive Paul Hammersley agrees, but adds: “I think it’s increasingly difficult to control these things. When advertising goes on the internet, it becomes global and you’ve got to accept that it will be seen.”
However, Hammersley agrees that brands need more global management. He says: “If the consumer is global, the brand is global. You need to take control of your own brand.”
The UK may be seen as stringent, but it is not the hardest market to advertise in. Pinder says: “The UK is one of the more demanding, but by no means the most demanding. Each market has its own view, based on culture and history.”
The ASA case has exposed the global behaviour of brands. But with no agreed worldwide standards on advertising rules, brand owners appear to be exploiting differences in regulations between markets to make contentious health claims.