In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission requesting an investigation and a corrective advertising campaign, the Public Health Advocacy Institute called Pepsi’s “Win from Within” television commercial and Web site deceptive, saying it could create an unreasonable risk of harm.

The commercial focuses on Michael Jordan’s “Flu Game” in game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, when the basketball superstar played with a fever and flu-like symptoms. According to the PHAI, the Gatorade ad asserts that the sports drink was a key to his game-winning performance and that Jordan “was able to persist” because he had “the fuel to help him do it” – the fuel being Gatorade.

PHAI said in its letter that the ad encourages viewers – particularly teens – to engage in dangerous behavior and “openly promotes engaging in vigorous physical activity while suffering from a very high fever, in Jordan’s case 103 degrees.”

“It is a generally recognized safety principle that teens and even professional athletes suffering from a severe fever and flu-like symptoms should not engage in vigorous physical activity.… The Jordan ad conveys the message that one can improve his athletic performance when he has the flu or a high fever by drinking Gatorade. This assertion is not substantiated by reliable scientific evidence and shows a disregard for the health and safety of teens and athletes as they should not participate in sports when suffering from a fever or the flu,” the group asserted in its letter.

The PHAI also questioned whether Gatorade actually provided the fuel to help Jordan persist. Despite footage of Jordan holding a Gatorade-branded cup filled with vibrant orange liquid, later images from the game show a clear liquid in Jordan’s cup.

Additionally, the PHAI’s letter targeted the sequencing of the ad, noting that actual game footage “reveals a different story” than was portrayed in the commercial. The television ad intersperses images of Jordan playing with shots of him covered in towels on the bench holding a Gatorade cup, “creating the distinct impression that the viewer is watching actual game footage of Mr. Jordan ‘refueling’ with Gatorade during the game in order to give him the ability to win.” According to the letter, “In reality, this footage occurred when Mr. Jordan came out of the game for the final time. There were 6.2 seconds remaining on the game clock and he never re-entered the game.”

The PHAI asks the FTC to take enforcement action because it believes that the ad contains deceptive product imagery and presents historical events in sequences that falsely enhance the role of Gatorade in Jordan’s game-winning athletic performance. The PHAI requested that Pepsi be made to halt the ads and be required to undertake a corrective advertising campaign.

To read the PHAI’s letter to the FTC, click here.

Why it matters: The FTC acknowledged that it received the letter but did not comment on whether it planned to initiate an investigation. Advertisers making health claims should take care to substantiate their claims as industry watchdog groups and consumers are keeping a close eye on such issues.