Last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a letter to General Mills warning of “serious violations” regarding the cholestorol-reduction claims used in Cheerios advertising over the last couple of years. This raises some very important issues for advertisers:
FDA “sending a message”
Is the FDA simply taking action to send a message? The FDA has recently been more aggressive in its enforcement of advertising, and this may be a strong message to brands that the ad police are here to stay. But if sending a message was the purpose, it raises ethical questions about how these targets are chosen. Enforcement targets should not be targeted based on which will send the loudest message, but rather the most appropriate and deserving targets should be sought after.
Why did the FDA wait two years to enforce the validity of Cheerios claim? The FDA can hardly claim that the campaign flew under the radar. The Cheerios cholesterol-lowering ad campaign has been one of the most high-profile and long-term campaigns of the last few years. Of course the obvious explanation is the change in administration – maybe General Mills should have paid closer attention. On the other hand, the FDA shouldn’t be able to renege on past decisions just because the people running the ship have a different interperetation of the regulations. If the FDA approved a claim, there should be accountability on their side as well.
Cheerios Claims – true or false?
Whether or not the FDA is sending a message, the main issue is the actual facts behind Cheerios claims. Even though the facts may be true, (that Cheerios may help reduce your risk of heart disease) General Mills did not adhere to the regulations that strictly govern how such statements are made. In laymans terms, advertisers cant associate just whole grains with a reduction in risk for disease. Rather, they must include the entire context of how good nutrition can reduce your risk for heart disease. For example, Cheerios would have to include fruits and vegetables and high fiber foods along with whole grains when stating a diet that can help prevent heart-disease.
So, where do we go from here?
Essentially, the Cheerios claims didn’t adhere to FDA regulations, but the FDA apparently had better things to do over the past two years. Now the FDA has wisened up and is cracking the whip. Businesses (and their advertising agencies) would be smart to re-evaluate their advertising claims. There’s a new sheriff in town. Cheerio for now, I’ve got some reading to do.
I initially learned about this from the Advertising Age article.