'Prove Your Ad Claims,' Chinese Government Tells P&G

11 July 2005

In the heady atmosphere of Klondyke capitalism that is the Peoples Republic of China today, few multinational advertisers are fazed by such petty considerations as substantiating their advertising claims.

So it came as something of a surprise to Procter & Gamble when the authorities in Zhejiang province and Beijing municipality demanded it do just that. Specifically in regard to its TV ads and packaging for a range of household products and toiletries.

Pending substantiation, advertising for some products was banned or placed under investigation last month. In particular, the commissars demanded that claims made for Pantene shampoo - including the assertion that it makes hair "ten time s stronger" - be proven.

P&G, and its local agency Grey Worldwide, stand by their product claims. "Everything we put on the air is researched and it's true," insists Daisy Ching, P&G's account director at Grey.

The spotlight first fell on P&G's questionable product claims in April when the Administration of Industry and Commerce in Nanchang fined the company $24,000 in the wake of a complaint from a consumer, Lu Ping.

Having forked-out $100 for P&G's SK-II skin cream, the credulous Ms Ping discovered the elixir wasn't the "miracle water" it claimed to be. "I will never believe in any ads anymore," she said.

Not only did the potion fail to make her skin look twelve years younger in 28 days, as the SK-II brochures suggested, it also caused itchiness and pain.

P&G now admits the product claim was extrapolated from the best of its testing results, and was "an incomplete representation of facts." It has since withdrawn brochures carrying the claim.

But the incident, together with Pantene's hair-strengthening assertions, has triggered an authoritarian backlash and crackdown on "false and illegal ads".

In particular, the authorities are now enforcing a 1995 law that requires statistical claims and quotations "to be true and accurate, with the sources clearly indicated."

P&G, meantime, has adopted an atypically Zen-like stance towards the furore. "The happenings in the last couple of months have been a good learning experience for us and other multinationals," opines Stevie Wong, general manager of P&G's skin-care products in China.

Some locals, however, detect in P&G's response an unsettling resemblance to the recantations of redeemed miscreants that epitomized communist show trials in the decling years of the last century.

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff