Taste tests used by MOM Brands Company to support superiority claims for its Malt-O-Meal cereals were flawed, which prompted the National Advertising Division to recommend that the advertiser discontinue the ads.

Competitor Post Foods challenged comparative claims such as “National Taste Test WINNER Fruity Dyno-Bites Preferred Over Post Fruity Pebbles” and “MOM Oat Blenders with Honey & Almonds Preferred Over Post Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds!”

Post argued that the advertiser’s taste test failed to meet industry standards for taste superiority claim substantiation as laid out in the ASTM Standard Guide for Sensory Claim Substantiation. In particular, the test populations did not accurately reflect the consumers of the product, the challenger said. Although consumers under the age of 35 compose a very high percentage of the cereals’ eaters (72 percent of Cocoa Pebbles consumers and 82 percent of Fruity Pebbles), the test subjects were limited to those aged 30 to 64.

But children are not the purchasers of the cereal products, MOM told the NAD, and the test properly encompassed the group targeted by its advertising: the actual purchasers of the products.

Citing concerns about the selected ages as well as the geographic range tested, the self-regulatory body recommended the claims be discontinued.

“NAD has established clear evidentiary standards for comparative taste claims,” according to the decision. “The best evidence to support taste preference claims is a double-blind taste test of comparative products and involves a geographically dispersed sample that reflects the population covered by the claim. The taste test should include adequate protocols, including: (1) compare products with similar shelf life that were purchased in the test market; (2) prepare both products according to instructions; (3) present and test products in the same way; (4) require test subjects to cleanse their palate prior to tasting each product; and (5) produce statistically significant results.”

MOM utilized only one testing center in the Northeast census region, as opposed to two or more – “a significant deviation from the industry standard” set by Section 5.2.8.2 of the ASTM Guide, the NAD said. “This affects the consumer relevance of the taste tests, as taste preferences can be significantly impacted by geographic variance.”

The claim that its products won a “National Taste Test” “conveys a broad, strong message regarding the taste preferences of the overall population of sweetened breakfast cereal consumers,” the NAD wrote. “Additionally, although the advertiser may have less of a presence in the Northeast, that may not necessarily be true for the challenger’s products or mean that there is not a significant population of a sweetened breakfast cereal consumers in that region.”

Because MOM limited the age range to 30 to 64, the self-regulatory body found the test to be insufficiently reliable and resulted in “problematic limitation on the taste tests’ sample population.”

“NAD and [the National Advertising Review Board] have held that ‘taste tests should sample consumers who customarily use the products being compared,’” the NAD wrote. “[B]y selecting a specific type of breakfast cereal purchaser for its taste test the advertiser excluded more than half of actual product users in the product category.”

MOM indicated that it plans to appeal the decision to the NARB. “We believe these decisions are inconsistent with the principles of the ASTM Guide for Sensory Claim Substantiation, and would do a disservice to the advertising industry if the decision stood as a precedent,” MOM said. The advertiser reiterated its position that the geographic locations were correctly chosen as “ten distinct locations in proportion to where the products are sold” so that the testing locations matched the locations where the claim would be seen.

As for the age groups represented in the samples, “We believe our use of adults was appropriate for buyers of all the products who primarily see the claim at the point of purchase,” the advertiser wrote. “MOM Brands also believes the NAD decision would impose, among other things, a requirement to test on children even for a product normally purchased and consumed by adults.”

To read the NAD’s press release about the decision, click here.

Why it matters: “Taste superiority claims should be supported by taste tests that sample consumers who customarily use the products being compared,” the NAD said. The self-regulatory body emphasized that the users of products should participate in testing, not the purchasers. In this case, that would mean consumers under the age of 30, a requirement MOM felt was inappropriate.