In a battle over electric toothbrushes, the National Advertising Division determined that Procter & Gamble can support superiority claims for its Oral-B models challenged by competitor Philips Oral Healthcare, the maker of Sonicare, while recommending that Philips discontinue two broadcast commercials.

In two television commercials, Philips promoted Sonicare with claims that the toothbrush had a greater number of "brush movements" and was "The most loved toothbrush in America." Although the advertiser told the self-regulatory body that the brush movement comparison was about innovation, not efficacy (because Sonicare had better technology) and that the "most loved" claims were puffery, the NAD was not convinced.

"Considering the entire context, imagery, and visual and audio claims," the commercials "reasonably convey a message of superior performance and efficacy versus Oral-B," the NAD wrote. The commercials depicted a comparative demonstration of the brush movements of the two brands (Sonicare toothbrushes use a sweeping motion with high bristle speed while Oral-B utilizes a rotating-oscillating design) and claimed "27% more brush movements" and healthier gums.

As for the "most loved" commercial, the NAD determined it also conveyed a message of superior performance and efficacy over competing electric toothbrushes. The commercial posed a question: "Why is Philips Sonicare the most loved electric toothbrush brand by Americans and their dentists?" with the answer in the form of a list of specific performance attributes including "a level of clean like you've never felt before" and "healthier gums in two weeks."

"A consumer seeing the commercial could quite reasonably take away the message that consumers and dentists love Sonicare because it performs better than competing toothbrushes by providing a superior cleaning experience, producing healthier gums, and that it does so because of the 62,000 brush movements," the NAD wrote.

Since Philips argued there were no implied claims in the commercial, it did not attempt to substantiate them, leaving the NAD to recommend that the commercials be discontinued. The advertiser's more limited express claims also failed review, despite Philips' contention that "most loved" constituted puffery.

"As is often the case, context matters," the NAD said, finding the "most loved" claim was tied to specific performance attributes. "Consumers know what unclean teeth feel like and what clean teeth feel like," according to the decision. "The claim appears immediately after the 'most loved' question is posed, suggesting that consumers love Sonicare because of something they can actually feel or detect or experience." Accordingly, "consumers could reasonably expect that the advertiser possesses evidence to substantiate its comparative superiority claim."

In a second decision, the NAD considered P&G's claims for Oral-B rechargeable toothbrushes found on its website, in print advertisements, and in television commercials such as "Oral-B cleans better by removing up to 22% more plaque than Sonicare and 33% more plaque in hard to reach places. Plus, it's even 32% better at improving gum health. For a superior clean, Oral-B is the right choice."

Philips argued the claims were unsupported and overbroad, and implied that Oral-B's entire line of rechargeable toothbrushes is superior to Sonicare's entire line of rechargeable toothbrushes. The challenger also questioned the strength of the studies forming the basis of P&G's claims.

The NAD found that the advertiser's health-related claims were supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence with studies published in independent, peer-reviewed journals and the detailed testing protocols that were provided. P&G did need to clarify which toothbrushes were the subject of the comparison, and to modify the claims "to expressly state" which Oral-B and Sonicare products were being compared.

To read the NAD's press release in Procter & Gamble's challenge to Philips' claims for Sonicare, click here.

To read the NAD's press release in Philips' challenge to P&G's claims for Oral-B, click here.

Why it matters: The decisions—in which the NAD noted that the two companies are the leading manufacturers of electric toothbrushes in the United States and "compete intensely" for market share in the oral healthcare field—provided many useful lessons for advertisers. Health-related superior performance or efficacy claims must be supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence, the self-regulatory body noted, and whether a claim is puffery depends on the total context of the advertising. "Where an objective representation is made regarding the performance or other tangible attributes of a product that is sufficiently specific and material enough to create expectations in consumers, then substantiation for the claim is required," the NAD noted.