The National Advertising Division recommended that the maker of Sonicare electric toothbrushes discontinue certain claims suggesting that the sound made by its brushes correlates to superior performance.

Competitor Procter & Gamble, makers of Oral-B toothbrushes, challenged claims made in two commercials for Philips Oral Healthcare’s Sonicare brushes, including, “This is the sound of sonic technology cleaning deep between teeth. [Powers on toothbrush…] Hear the difference?” Both the 15- and 30-second versions of the ad featured a voice-over praising the Sonicare brushes with the buzzing noise of the products in the background.

Consumers will connect the “sound of sonic technology” to the product’s efficacy, P&G argued, and in the context of the commercial, the question “Hear the difference?” will be understood to mean the sound of Oral-B technology tells the consumer something about its relative cleaning performance.

Philips disagreed, taking the position that the ad would be viewed as one of auditory comparison, not efficacy, and merely informs consumers about the “pleasing sound” of its sonic technology, which is more pleasant than the noise of Oral-B toothbrushes.

After first finding that the advertiser made unsupported line claims—in light of the commercial’s “repeated general brand references, and depiction of multiple Sonicare handles”—the NAD found that the sounds used in the ads also conveyed a message of superior efficacy.

Putting aside questions regarding the truthfulness or accuracy of whether the Philips product emits a more pleasant sound than the challenger’s product, NAD observed that Philips itself “linked the sound of its sonic technology with a specific comparative performance benefit.”

The voice-over states, “This is the sound of Sonicare technology cleaning deep between teeth,” as the device is turned on, accompanied by “lively music” and the words “Dynamic cleaning action” on the screen. In contrast, the music stops abruptly upon the appearance of the Oral-B product as the voice-over asks, “Hear the difference?” and the toothbrush is powered on, spinning in the air.

“While perhaps in a monadic context, the voiceover’s statement ‘This is the sound of Sonicare technology cleaning deep between teeth’ could arguably be considered puffery, in the context offered here—the advertiser, having tied the sound of the parties’ respective technologies to a specific comparative performance benefit—it cannot,” the NAD said. “Rather, NAD concluded that at least one reasonable message conveyed by this portion of the commercial is one of superior efficacy … i.e., that the sound of sonic technology correlates to superior performance benefit of Sonicare over Oral-B at ‘cleaning deep between teeth’—a message that is unsupported by the record.”

In its advertiser’s statement, Philips said the NAD’s findings and recommendations “are contrary to the evidence in the record and prior NAD decisions,” adding that it intends to appeal the decision to the National Advertising Review Board.

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

Why it matters: “An advertiser may choose the object of its comparison as long as information material to the comparison is clearly communicated within the context of the advertising in which the comparative claim appears,” the self-regulatory body wrote. “On this point, the advertiser here is free to tout the respective sounds of the parties’ products and—presuming such claims can be supported—claim that its product offers a more pleasing sound than that of a competitive product. What an advertiser may not do—absent any evidence—is claim that the respective sounds of the parties’ products correlate to a comparative efficacy or performance benefit.”