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49.5 Cases

False and Misleading Representations

J. B. Williams Co. v. FTC

381 F.2d 884 (6th Cir. 1967)

CELEBREEZE, CIRCUIT JUDGE

The question presented by this appeal is whether Petitioners’ advertising of a product, Geritol, for the relief of iron deficiency anemia, is false and misleading so as to violate Sections 5 and 12 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

The J. B. Williams Company, Inc. is a New York corporation engaged in the sale and distribution of two products known as Geritol liquid and Geritol tablets. Geritol liquid was first marketed in August, 1950; Geritol tablets in February, 1952. Geritol is sold throughout the United States and advertisements for Geritol have appeared in newspapers and on television in all the States of the United States.

Parkson Advertising Agency, Inc. has been the advertising agency for Williams since 1957. Most of the advertising money for Geritol is spent on television advertising.…

The Commission’s Order requires that not only must the Geritol advertisements be expressly limited to those persons whose symptoms are due to an existing deficiency of one or more of the vitamins contained in the preparation, or due to an existing deficiency of iron, but also the Geritol advertisements must affirmatively disclose the negative fact that a great majority of persons who experience these symptoms do not experience them because they have a vitamin or iron deficiency; that for the great majority of people experiencing these symptoms, Geritol will be of no benefit. Closely related to this requirement is the further requirement of the Order that the Geritol advertisements refrain from representing that the symptoms are generally reliable indications of iron deficiency.

* * *

The main thrust of the Commission’s Order is that the Geritol advertising must affirmatively disclose the negative fact that a great majority of persons who experience these symptoms do not experience them because there is a vitamin or iron deficiency.

The medical evidence on this issue is conflicting and the question is not one which is susceptible to precise statistical analysis.

* * *

While the advertising does not make the affirmative representation that the majority of people who are tired and rundown are so because of iron deficiency anemia and the product Geritol will be an effective cure, there is substantial evidence to support the finding of the Commission that most tired people are not so because of iron deficiency anemia, and the failure to disclose this fact is false and misleading because the advertisement creates the impression that the tired feeling is caused by something which Geritol can cure.

* * *

Here the advertisements emphasize the fact that if you are often tired and run-down you will feel stronger fast by taking Geritol. The Commission, in looking at the overall impression created by the advertisements on the general public, could reasonably find these advertisements were false and misleading. The finding that the advertisements link common, non-specific symptoms with iron deficiency anemia, and thereby create a false impression because most people with these symptoms are not suffering from iron deficiency anemia, is both reasonable and supported by substantial evidence. The Commission is not bound to the literal meaning of the words, nor must the Commission take a random sample to determine the meaning and impact of the advertisements.

Petitioners argue vigorously that the Commission does not have the legal power to require them to state the negative fact that “in the great majority of persons who experience such symptoms, these symptoms are not caused by a deficiency of one or more of the vitamins contained in the preparation or by iron deficiency or iron deficiency anemia”; and “for such persons the preparation will be of no benefit.”

We believe the evidence is clear that Geritol is of no benefit in the treatment of tiredness except in those cases where tiredness has been caused by a deficiency of the ingredients contained in Geritol. The fact that the great majority of people who experience tiredness symptoms do not suffer from any deficiency of the ingredients in Geritol is a “material fact” under the meaning of that term as used in Section 15 of the Federal Trade Commission Act and Petitioners’ failure to reveal this fact in this day when the consumer is influenced by mass advertising utilizing highly developed arts of persuasion, renders it difficult for the typical consumer to know whether the product will in fact meet his needs unless he is told what the product will or will not do.…

* * *

The Commission forbids the Petitioners’ representation that the presence of iron deficiency anemia can be self-diagnosed or can be determined without a medical test. The danger to be remedied here has been fully and adequately taken care of in the other requirements of the Order. We can find no Congressional policy against self-medication on a trial and error basis where the consumer is fully informed and the product is safe as Geritol is conceded to be. In fact, Congressional policy is to encourage such self-help. In effect the Commission’s Order l(f) tends to place Geritol in the prescription drug field. We do not consider it within the power of the Federal Trade Commission to remove Geritol from the area of proprietary drugs and place it in the area of prescription drugs. This requirement of the Order will not be enforced. We also find this Order is not unduly vague and fairly apprises the Petitioners of what is required of them. Petition denied and, except for l(f) of the Commission’s Order, enforcement of the Order will be granted

Video 49.1

(click to see video)

Students may be interested in a Geritol ad from 1960.

Case Questions

  1. Did the defendant actually make statements that were false? If so, what were they? Or, rather than being clearly false, were the statements deceptive? If so, how so?
  2. Whether or not you feel that you have “tired blood” or “iron-poor blood,” you may be amused by a Geritol ad from 1960. See Video 49.1. Do the disclaimers at the start of the ad that “the majority of tired people don’t feel that way because of iron-poor blood” sound like corrective advertising? Is the ad still deceptive in some way? If so, how? If not, why not?

Product Comparisons

P. Lorillard Co. v. Federal Trade Commission

186 F.2d 52 (4th Cir. 1950)

Parker, Chief Judge

This is a petition to set aside an order of the Federal Trade Commission which directed that the P. Lorillard Company cease and desist from making certain representations found to be false in the advertising of its tobacco products. The Commission has filed an answer asking that its order be enforced. The company was ordered to cease and desist “from representing by any means directly or indirectly”:

That Old Gold cigarettes or the smoke therefrom contains less nicotine, or less tars and resins, or is less irritating to the throat than the cigarettes or the smoke therefrom of any of the six other leading brands of cigarettes.

* * *

Laboratory tests introduced in evidence show that the difference in nicotine, tars and resins of the different leading brands of cigarettes is insignificant in amount; and there is abundant testimony of medical experts that such difference as there is could result in no difference in the physiological effect upon the smoker. There is expert evidence, also, that the slight difference in the nicotine, tar and resin content of cigarettes is not constant between different brands, but varies from place to place and from time to time, and that it is a practical impossibility for the manufacturer of cigarettes to determine or to remove or substantially reduce such content or to maintain constancy of such content in the finished cigarette. This testimony gives ample support to the Commission’s findings.

* * *

The company relies upon the truth of the advertisements complained of, saying that they merely state what had been truthfully stated in an article in the Reader’s Digest. An examination of the advertisements, however, shows a perversion of the meaning of the Reader’s Digest article which does little credit to the company’s advertising department—a perversion which results in the use of the truth in such a way as to cause the reader to believe the exact opposite of what was intended by the writer of the article. A comparison of the advertisements with the article makes this very plain. The article, after referring to laboratory tests that had been made on cigarettes of the leading brands, says:

“The laboratory’s general conclusion will be sad news for the advertising copy writers, but good news for the smoker, who need no longer worry as to which cigarette can most effectively nail down his coffin. For one nail is just about as good as another. Says the laboratory report: ‘The differences between brands are, practically speaking, small, and no single brand is so superior to its competitors as to justify its selection on the ground that it is less harmful.’ How small the variations are may be seen from the data tabulated on page 7.”

The table referred to in the article was inserted for the express purpose of showing the insignificance of the difference in the nicotine and tar content of the smoke from the various brands of cigarettes. It appears therefrom that the Old Gold cigarettes examined in the test contained less nicotine, tars and resins than the others examined, although the difference, according to the uncontradicted expert evidence, was so small as to be entirely insignificant and utterly without meaning so far as effect upon the smoker is concerned. The company proceeded to advertise this difference as though it had received a citation for public service instead of a castigation from the Reader’s Digest. In the leading newspapers of the country and over the radio it advertised that the Reader’s Digest had had experiments conducted and had found that Old Gold cigarettes were lowest in nicotine and lowest in irritating tars and resins, just as though a substantial difference in such content had been found. The following advertisement may be taken as typical:

OLD GOLDS FOUND LOWEST IN NICOTINE

OLD GOLDS FOUND LOWEST IN

THROAT-IRRITATING TARS AND RESINS

“See Impartial Test by Reader’s Digest July Issue.” See How Your Brand Compares with Old Gold.

“Reader’s Digest assigned a scientific testing laboratory to find out about cigarettes. They tested seven leading cigarettes and Reader’s Digest published the results.

“The cigarette whose smoke was lowest in nicotine was Old Gold. The cigarette with the least throat-irritating tars and resins was Old Gold.

“On both these major counts Old Gold was best among all seven cigarettes tested.

“Get July Reader’s Digest. Turn to Page 5. See what this highly respected magazine reports.

“You’ll say, ‘From now on, my cigarette is Old Gold.’ Light one? Note the mild, interesting flavor. Easier on the throat? Sure: And more smoking pleasure: Yes, it’s the new Old Gold—finer yet, since ‘something new has been added’.”

The fault with this advertising was not that it did not print all that the Reader’s Digest article said, but that it printed a small part thereof in such a way as to create an entirely false and misleading impression, not only as to what was said in the article, but also as to the quality of the company’s cigarettes. Almost anyone reading the advertisements or listening to the radio broadcasts would have gained the very definite impression that Old Gold cigarettes were less irritating to the throat and less harmful than other leading brands of cigarettes because they contained substantially less nicotine, tars and resins, and that the Reader’s Digest had established this fact in impartial laboratory tests; and few would have troubled to look up the Reader’s Digest to see what it really had said. The truth was exactly the opposite. There was no substantial difference in Old Gold cigarettes and the other leading brands with respect to their content of nicotine, tars and resins and this was what the Reader’s Digest article plainly said. The table whose meaning the advertisements distorted for the purpose of misleading and deceiving the public was intended to prove that there was no practical difference and did prove it when properly understood. To tell less than the whole truth is a well-known method of deception; and he who deceives by resorting to such method cannot excuse the deception by relying upon the truthfulness per se of the partial truth by which it has been accomplished.

In determining whether or not advertising is false or misleading within the meaning of the statute regard must be had, not to fine spun distinctions and arguments that may be made in excuse, but to the effect which it might reasonably be expected to have upon the general public. “The important criterion is the net impression which the advertisement is likely to make upon the general populace.” As was well said by Judge Coxe in Florence Manufacturing Co. v. J. C Dowd & Co., with reference to the law relating to trademarks: “The law is not made for the protection of experts, but for the public—that vast multitude which includes the ignorant, the unthinking and the credulous, who, in making purchases, do not stop to analyze, but are governed by appearances and general impressions.”

* * *

For the reasons stated, the petition to set aside the order will be denied and the order will be enforced.

Case Questions

  1. From a practical perspective, what (if anything) is wrong with caveat emptor—”let the buyer beware”? The careful consumer could have looked at the Reader’s Digest article; the magazine was widely available in libraries and newsstands.
  2. Why isn’t this just an example of “puffing” the company’s wares? (Puffing presents opinions rather than facts; statements like “This car is a real winner” and “Your wife will love this watch” constitute puffing.)