Prego’s television and print advertising promoting taste test results with Ragu pasta sauce on a single variety of sauce should be modified or discontinued to avoid an unsupported line claim comparison, the National Advertising Division has recommended.

A television commercial for Prego traditional pasta sauce opened with the statement, “In blind taste tests, even Ragu users choose Prego,” followed by a statement, “Prego? But I’ve been buying Ragu for years.” The ad ended with “Choose Taste. Choose Prego.”

Unilever, maker of Ragu pasta sauces, challenged the ads, alleging that they communicated an implied claim that Ragu users prefer the taste of the entire line of Prego pasta sauces over the entire line of Ragu pasta sauces. Prego could not substantiate such a claim, Unilever said, as the taste test actually compared a single variant of each of the pasta sauce lines: Prego Traditional vs. Ragu Old World Style Traditional.

Prego disagreed. The commercials at issue contained a simple express claim about the two specific styles of pasta sauce compared with a true and accurate claim, not a claim message regarding the entire line of products, the advertisers argued. In support, Prego offered the results of a consumer perception survey of 324 national online respondents, where only 11 percent took a line claim message from the ads.

The NAD began with the survey, which it found flawed. For one thing, consumers repeatedly referred to “Prego” and “Ragu” and not Prego Traditional or Ragu Old World Style Traditional. While the advertiser argued that this was how consumers normally communicate and did not represent a reference to the entire brand or line of pasta sauces, the NAD said such a position was “mere speculation.” Such responses “could reasonably be interpreted (or coded) as brand or line claims.”

Further review of the survey results found that approximately 1 percent used singular terms (like “product” or “sauce”) and only three individuals referenced one of the two sauces actually compared.

Emphasizing the importance of moving from open-ended to increasingly focused questioning, the NAD said Prego improperly crafted the control question, which should have been posed in the same format as the question from which the results were subtracted to control for noise.

Given its “concerns and questions,” the self-regulatory body concluded the survey was not sufficiently reliable and stepped into the shoes of consumers.

Reviewing the ad as a whole – including the use of general brand references, if the copy limited the applicability of the claim, and how many varieties of the product were actually shown – the NAD found that Prego communicated an unsubstantiated line claim message.

“[T]he advertiser refers three times solely to the brand names in the prominent audio segments and not once to the specific varieties being compared,” according to the decision. No tight shot of the Ragu label was included that might help limit the variety being compared, as only a “single fairly fleeting image” of the Ragu Old World Style Traditional label was shown. “This is particularly problematic given . . . the similar trade dress of the parties’ products,” which makes it difficult to distinguish between the specific variants of pasta sauces that were compared.

Prego’s disclosure (“Prego Traditional vs. Ragu Old World Style Traditional”) failed to help, the NAD added, as it appeared for only two to three seconds in a 30-second commercial. “Clearly, there is additional opportunity within the challenged commercial to expressly disclose that only two specific variants of pasta sauce are being compared,” the NAD wrote.

Recommending that the ads be modified or discontinued, the NAD also expressed concern about a “spill-over” effect to print advertisements, which also included a “beauty shot” of two to three varieties of Prego pasta sauces. Those ads should be modified to limit the visual to depict the single variety tested.

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

Why it matters: In addition to offering guidance on consumer perception studies, the decision serves as a lesson in how the NAD will evaluate line claims. “In determining whether an advertisement conveys a product line message, NAD considers whether there are general brand references in the advertisement, the copy effectively limits the applicability of the claim, and if only one variety of the product is shown,” the NAD noted. “Generally, where an advertisement makes general brand references but fails to adequately qualify the claim to limit its applicability to the one product shown in the advertisement, it is likely to convey the message that the benefits or attributes touted extend to the entire product line.”