In a challenge brought by Procter & Gamble, the National Advertising Division determined that Reckitt Benckiser, the maker of Lysol disinfectant products, must discontinue claims that linked P&G’s Febreze product with fungi and E. coli.

In addition, the self-regulatory body recommended that Reckitt modify a revised version of the ads that implied that its disinfectant spray kills 99.9 percent of germs when sprayed on shoes and soiled diapers.

The Lysol television commercial at issue began with a scene of two women spraying air fresheners that appeared to be P&G’s Febreze Air Effects as a voiceover stated: “Mediterranean Lavender with a hint of . . . Fungi” and “Sweet Citrus with a note of . . . E. coli.” During the voiceover, the camera panned to a pair of dirty shoes and then a presumably soiled diaper in a garbage can. After a voiceover of “Air fresheners like Febreze smell nice, but aren’t approved to kill the germs that cause odors,” a super appeared, reading “Lysol disinfectant spray freshens the air and kills germs on hard surfaces when used as directed.” During the sequence, a visual showed a woman spraying the inside of a garbage can lid. To conclude the ad, the voiceover stated: “and now you can use it to freshen the air, too. Healthing. More than a pretty smelling home. It’s a healthy one.”

Recognizing that the Lysol products are intended to have a dual benefit of disinfectant and air freshener, P&G argued that the commercial conflated the two purposes and suggested that Lysol could kill germs in the air. The ad falsely implied that Febreze only masks or covers odors, P&G added, and suggests that Febreze products actually contain bacteria. Reckitt’s references to “Mediterranean Lavender” and “Sweet Citrus” – two popular names in the Febreze product line – combined with images of spray cans resembling Febreze products conveyed a message to consumers that Febreze is dangerous or unhealthy, P&G contended.

No reasonable consumer would take away the message that Febreze actually contains bacteria, Reckitt responded. Instead, the commercial conveys the message that Febreze does not have an effect on the germs found in sneakers or dirty diapers, the advertiser said, a message that is true and not misleading because P&G’s products are air fresheners and do not kill germs.

Noting that it was “very troubled” by the commercial’s association between E. coli and fungus and the Febreze product line, the NAD determined that the ads reasonably conveyed a message that Febreze “fails in its function as an air freshener by virtue of not being a disinfectant.” The evidence in the record did not support such a consumer takeaway, the opinion noted, as Febreze does in fact mitigate odors. “Febreze’s odor elimination mechanism is different, but has not been demonstrated to be less effective than Lysol’s,” the self-regulatory body determined, finding this aspect of the commercial to be misleading.

The removal of the statements “Mediterranean Lavender with a hint of . . . Fungi” and “Sweet Citrus with a note of . . . E. coli” as well as “more than a pretty smelling home” was therefore necessary and appropriate, the NAD said.

While Lysol is entitled to communicate the dual benefits of its product line in comparison to Febreze’s singular purpose, the NAD said the ad conflated the two functions and generated confusion. The sequence featuring the sneakers and diaper misleadingly “conveys the message that Lysol, if sprayed on a pair of dirty sneakers, could kill all of the fungi in the sneakers.” However, “no evidence in the record supports the message that Lysol could kill 99.9 percent of germs when sprayed on sneakers and dirty diapers – items that contain many crannies and layers in which germs might linger even if the product is sprayed on the surface.” Reckitt must modify the commercial to avoid this unsupported message, the NAD concluded.

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

Why it matters: Although Reckitt attempted to dodge the action by modifying the original version of the challenged commercial, the NAD found additional changes were necessary. The replacement of voiceover statements “Mediterranean Lavender with a hint of . . . Fungi” and “Sweet Citrus with a note of . . . E. coli” with “Gentle Lilac . . . fungi still there” and “Ocean Breeze . . . E. coli still around” passed muster as the removal of the phrases “a hint” and “a note” “no longer suggests that Febreze leaves malodors lingering in the air.” But the self-regulatory body “remained troubled” by the shoe and diaper imagery and recommended that Reckitt drop implied claims that Lysol could kill bacteria in dirty diapers and shoes.