Curbing deceptive marketing
Consumers don’t like to be manipulated, but brands manipulate us all the time. Case in point, a can of Canada Dry Ginger Ale highlights “Made from Real Ginger,” but “ginger” is nowhere to be found in the ingredient list, only “natural flavours.” As a consequence, consumers filed lawsuits to hold the brand accountable for false advertising.
It is a marketer’s job to influence consumers to buy a product. Some marketers will go to any lengths; twisting words, stretching the truth or outright lying. Not only is that deceptive marketing, it’s unethical and illegal. “Deceptive” is defined as “causing [a person] to believe what is not true, or fail to believe what is true.”
Health Canada’s Food and Drug Regulations exist to “help Canadians make healthy and informed choices about the foods they buy and eat.” The legislation applies to pre-packaged foods distributed by retail stores, restaurants, other foodservice establishments and airlines. Free samples must have compliant labelling too.
Legal requirements also extend to advertising, which includes websites, social media, store flyers and signage, all media and promotional vehicles.
The overarching rule is that food labelling and advertising must be “truthful and not misleading.” This opens up a big can of worms for food marketers.
What are claims?
Health Canada regulates at least 10 types of claims, including health, nutrient content, nutrient function, disease risk reduction, negative (free-from), functional, composition, comparative, method of production and quality. Being able to navigate and understand the complex regulations requires a high level of expertise.
Product features and benefits in marketing copy are often considered “claims.” Just about anything you say about a product could be a claim. Even images can imply a claim and mislead consumers.
Questionable marketing lingo
Here is a list of commonly used statements that are problematic:
- “Natural” claims are ubiquitous
but the regulations spell out specific conditions.
- “Gluten-free” is a particularly risky claim. Products must meet regulatory requirements and manufacturers need GMPs and preventive controls.
- “Better” implies a product is being compared with another and requires an explanation.
- “Canadian” means a product’s processing, labour and more than 98 per cent of the ingredients are of Canadian origin. “Made in Canada” requires a qualifying statement. And the Canadian flag cannot be used without government permission.
- Organic statements such as “Made with organic ingredients,” “100% organic (product name)” and “Certified Organic” are not permitted.
- “All the energy to get you through to the next meal” is misleading and unacceptable.
- Cereal is not considered a complete breakfast and should not be promoted as such.
- “Breakfast bar/cookie/drink” suggests the product is a meal replacement for breakfast. Therefore it must meet Health Canada’s nutrient requirements for a meal.
- “Tonic” cannot be used as a descriptive term for a food product.
- Some brands use celebrity testimonials or quote articles that tout health benefits. That too is a no-no, unless the statement complies with regulations.
My company tackles this challenge as part of our copywriting process, ensuring that marketing copy we create complies with food labelling regulations.
The truth will prevail and the truth is based on facts. Use it as your yardstick, and have marketing copy reviewed by a regulatory specialist. Ignorance of the law is no defence.
Lots of brands circumvent the rules, making all kinds of non-compliant claims. If the CFIA doesn’t step in, consumers who feel deceived will.