Posted: March 25, 2014, 5:20 p.m. EDT
Pet food maker Blue Buffalo Co. has agreed to alter an online brand-comparison tool that a competitor challenged but will fight to continue making certain advertising claims, the National Advertising Division (NAD) reported today.
NAD, the investigative arm of the self-regulating advertising industry, recommended changes to the online True Blue Test and to some advertising claims made in electronic and print media.
Blue Buffalo confirmed in an NAD statement that the True Blue Test would be modified. The Wilton, Conn., company also noted that it would appeal the remaining recommendations to NAD’s parent organization, the National Advertising Review Board.
A company spokesperson could not be reached to comment further.
The True Blue Test allows dog and cat owners to compare Blue Buffalo against other brands.
Some of Blue Buffalo’s television, Internet, mobile and print advertising called out the use and nutritional value of meat byproducts and meal in pet food produced by "big name” manufacturers. Examples included:
• "It takes a lot to get me mad, but it really hit me when I realized that his big-name dog food had chicken byproduct meal as a first ingredient, not real meat. It felt like they fooled me, so I switched Leo to Blue Buffalo.”
• "If you are feeding one of the big-name brands, chances are you’re in for a big letdown.”
• "Pet parents are learning the truth about the ingredients in some of the leading dog food brands. Don’t be fooled by the big-name dog food brands.”
The pet owners depicted by actors appeared "shocked and disappointed to learn that big-name pet foods contain chicken byproduct meal, leading the pet owner to switch to the Blue product,” NAD stated.
Pet Nutrition Inc. of Topeka, Kan., had challenged the advertising claims. Hill’s makes food for dogs and cats under the Science Diet, Prescription Diet and Ideal Balance lines.
"The challenger argued that all of the challenged advertising conveys the same falsely disparaging and inflammatory message: that ‘big name’ pet food manufacturers, including Hill’s, are actively [trying] to conceal the fact that they include chicken byproduct meal, instead of meat, as the first ingredient,” NAD stated.
Blue Buffalo’s market research showed that "many pet owners prefer meat as the first ingredient of their pet food and do not want their pet’s food to contain any chicken or poultry byproduct meals,” NAD added. "Further, the advertiser maintained that the surprised and angry reactions of the actors constitute puffery.”
The agency determined that the advertisements "reasonably conveyed that leading pet food makers are misleading consumers by actively concealing the content of their products and by positioning their products as high quality when they are not and that consumers should switch to Blue.”
NAD acknowledged that Blue Buffalo was free "to promote the high-quality ingredients in its products and to encourage consumers to check product labels before making purchasing decisions.”
While Blue Buffalo
is appealing the advertising recommendations, the company agreed to alter the online True Blue Test. Hill’s contended that the test "makes inaccurate, brand-wide comparisons that imply all, or almost all, products from every major competitor contain ingredients such as chicken byproduct meal.”
NAD urged Blue Buffalo to ensure that True Blue Test comparisons are "truthful and accurate, that disclosures are clear, conspicuous and easy to read, and [that] checkmarks signifying positive pet food attributes are uniform in color to equally highlight the positive attributes of both Blue and its competitors.”
Blue Buffalo did win on one front. NAD found that claims about LifeSource Bits—vitamins, minerals and antioxidants added to Blue products—”reasonably communicate” that the foods contain a special blend of ingredients.
Disputes over pet product advertising have gotten the National Advertising Division’s attention on other occasions. The agency in late 2012 recommended that Farnam
Pet Products modify or discontinue certain advertising claims for its Adams Flea & Tick Spot On for Dogs.
NAD stated that pet food advertisers wield considerable freedom—to a point.
"While companies can and should inform consumers about the composition of their pet food, they may not falsely disparage competing products by communicating unsupported messages that these products are less healthy, less safe or nutritionally inferior,” the agency noted.
A Hill’s spokesperson declined to comment on the case.
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