In a challenge brought by competitor Benjamin Moore, the National Advertising Division determined that Sherwin-Williams should modify claims for its Harmony line of paints, which it advertised as being completely free of volatile organic compounds (“VOCs”). Claims included “No-VOC formula” and “Zero-VOC formula,” as well as an implied claim that the entire line of paints – including base paint and color paint – contained no VOCs.

The parties agreed that a “zero VOC” or “no VOC” claim is substantiated if the VOC content of the paint contains less than 5.0 grams per liter (g/L) VOC.

While the base paint of the Harmony line paints may contain a de minimis VOC level, Benjamin Moore argued that when conventional colorant is added, the VOC levels increase dramatically, in some cases, up to 17 and 47 g/L, far exceeding the de minimis standards. Nowhere in Sherwin-Williams’ advertisements did the company disclose that its zero-VOC claims apply only to the base paint and not to its combined paint color choices, Benjamin Moore contended.

Sherwin-Williams countered that the NAD should recognize that both consumers and paint manufacturers interpret zero-VOC claims to be applicable to the majority of possible tints and colorants – but not to every possible formulation.

But the NAD disagreed.

Even though most of the Harmony line colors fall below the 5.0 g/L, the NAD said that “in the absence of a disclaimer, there is no reason to assume that such consumers inherently understand the variability of ingredients in different colors of paint such that they would know that certain colors of a zero-VOC line of paint may exceed a 5.0 g/L or other acceptable threshold.”

“A line claim reasonably communicates that the performance promised (zero-VOC) is true for all of the products in the line. The evidence in the record demonstrates that not all of the paint colors in the Harmony line perform as promised,” the NAD determined.

The NAD said that Sherwin-Williams might be able to limit its zero-VOC claims to the Harmony base paint, or provide clarification that exceptions to the line claim existed, using clear and conspicuous indications that use of some colorants may result in higher VOC levels.

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

Why it matters: “An advertiser must provide a reasonable basis for all express and implied claims in its advertising,” the NAD wrote. “In order to substantiate a line claim, an advertiser must produce evidence demonstrating that all of the products in the line will perform as promised.”