In an challenge brought by competitor Sun Products, the National Advertising Division recommended that Procter & Gamble modify claims for its Ultra Downy April Fresh Liquid fabric softener in a television commercial because the claims included an unsupported message of product superiority.

The decision focused on one of three challenged commercials after Procter & Gamble permanently discontinued running one ad and voluntarily discontinued using another.

Claims at issue included “What if clean sheet day became clean sheet week?” and “New Ultra Downy April Fresh with Scent Pearls gives a whole week of freshness with just one wash.”

Sun Products argued that the Downy ad campaign made false and misleading claims that competitors’ fabric softeners lost fragrance faster and left fabrics less soft than Downy. Procter & Gamble said the campaign was an attempt to express to consumers that its Downy with Scent Pearls extends freshness to an entire week – not that Sun Product’s Snuggle loses all fragrance after one day.

But the NAD determined that the “commercial could reasonably be interpreted by consumers to mean that Snuggle’s fragrance lasts one day as compared to Ultra Downy’s, which lasts one week.”

The beginning of the television commercial began with a voiceover asking “What if clean sheet day became clean sheet week? New Ultra Downy April Fresh has Scent Pearls that give you a whole week of freshness with just one wash,” with the word “day” in the “clean sheet day” visual crossed out to state “clean sheet week.”

“This introduction, NAD determined, sets the tone of the commercial from which consumers could reasonably take away the message that fabric softeners typically provide one day’s worth of fresh scent (including, but not limited to, the challenger’s Snuggle), but that now Ultra Downy with its new formula provides sufficient fragrance to last a full seven days,” the panel said.

Further frames depicted a bottle of Ultra Downy with checkboxes for seven days stacked next to it, all checked off, next to a bottle of Snuggle with no boxes next to it.

“Certainly one of the messages reasonably conveyed by the [commercial] is that the challenger’s Snuggle’s fresh scent lasts for one day as opposed to the advertiser’s Downy, which lasts for seven days – a disparaging message that is unsupported by the evidence,” the NAD said.

It recommended that the comparative message be discontinued.

Sun Products commissioned two different consumer perception surveys, which it contended supported its position. P&G challenged the surveys, arguing they lacked an effective control and that Sun Products performed an improper aggregation and coding of data. The NAD said it could not conclude that the survey was fatally flawed.

The NAD offered some advice for companies conducting consumer perception surveys, emphasizing the value in open-ended questions to avoid leading and probing questions. “NAD believes that a progression from open-ended to increasingly focused questioning using commonly employed filtering techniques is a better approach to probing for implied messages than asking leading questions that increase the potential for biased results,” the NAD said.

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

Why it matters: “‘It is well established that an advertiser is obligated to support all reasonable interpretations of claims made in its advertising, including messages it may not have intended to convey.’ While NAD appreciates how important it is for an advertiser to be able to distinguish its product from competing products, at the same time NAD recognizes that expressly or implicitly disparaging claims can damage a product’s market share. Therefore, NAD scrutinizes such claims to ensure that they are truthful, accurate and narrowly drawn,” the NAD said.