September 25 2012
False Advertising Has No Place in the Free Market
Vicki E. Alger
Mini™, the happy whole grain biscuit featured in Kellogg’s Mini Wheats® back-to-school ads, has been put back on detention by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco.
It all started a few years ago when the little animated cereal bite claimed he would help improve children’s attentiveness in school by about 20 percent. Trouble was, the claim was based on a comparison between a group of 8- to 12-year-olds who were fed a bowl of mini frosted fun and another group who just had water. A few hours later, the cereal group was—shocker—more attentive than the H2O breakfast group.
(Let’s hope precocious elementary schoolers don’t get wind of this and start pushing for “scientific” experiments of their own comparing the relative attentiveness levels of water-only breakfasts versus pixie sticks, Halloween candy, or chocolate-chip cookies.)
Kellogg was on the verge of a $10.6 million settlement with the class-action consumer advocate lawyers, when the plaintiffs objected to the $2 million in attorneys’ fees (versus the $15 each cereal consumer would get). Plaintiffs also objected that Kellogg’s offer to make food charities donations was too remote from their own interests and unrelated to the company’s false advertising. The court has ordered Kellogg and the lawyers to go back to the drawing board and come up with a better settlement.
I’m from the caveat emptor school of thought and no fan of frivolous gee-hot-coffee-is-well-HOT lawsuits. I’m also more than a little sick of people who’ve made their own idiotic choices flocking en masse to the nearest courthouse hoping to cash in under a banner of “consumer protection.”
This is different.
False advertising has no place in the free market, which depends on accurate information so customers can make informed choices about the products and services they buy. When companies choose to mislead, there are legal and economic consequences—as it should be.