KILLS ALL THE GERMS! Except that one.
November 23, 2010 3:13 PM   Subscribe

Why do commercials usually show the product killing MOST, but not ALL, of the things it's supposed to kill?

I've wondered about this for as long as I've watched TV. When you see the commercials for germ-killing soap, or plaque-killing mouthwash, or even in flea-killing medicines (like the recent one for Frontline or whatever with the ninja blobs)... you see the graphic that shows the population of germ-blobs being wiped clean.. except for maybe one or two, or all the fleas dying except for some in the background. I suppose there is some legal reason that the product cannot be labelled as "kills 100% of germs" because things like Lysol say "kills 99.87% of germs"... but in a TV commercial, why the need to leave X number of germs in the graphic (which weakens the sale) when you don't have to specify "this product does not actually produce blob ninjas" or "the germs in your house will not actually scream and die amusing animated deaths as shown".
posted by Pastor of Muppets to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
false advertising charges could be brought against them if they inadequately demonstrate that 100% of (target) is killed by their product and it fails to do so.
posted by radiosilents at 3:16 PM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

The law makes a distinction between claims which a reasonable person would treat as "puffing," e.g. "This product is the bestest evar!" and claims which a reasonable person would treat as specific factual claims, e.g. "This car weighs 1589 pounds and gets an average of 28.5 mpg on the highway."

Animations of germs getting killed by animated cleaning product? Puffing. A claim that all germs are categorically killed? Probably sufficiently close to specific factual claims to make lawyers nervous about false advertising claims.

Certainly makes this lawyer nervous anyway.
posted by valkyryn at 3:20 PM on November 23, 2010

Perhaps because putting 99.87% implies that the product has been "scientifically tested", which makes potential buyers more confident about its effectiveness. In contrast, "100% effective" sounds like hyperbole/a guess.
posted by mattn at 3:21 PM on November 23, 2010

Here's a nice article by a microbiologist that explains the testing methodology and why no product seems to kill 100% of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. The products are tested in a standardized way, the numbers are submitted to a regulatory authority like Health Canada or the EPA, and then they can be used in advertising.
posted by jedicus at 3:23 PM on November 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

The legal part also comes into play when a product claims that a feature will "help" do something, instead of just do something. I used to get tons of copy revisions at a job associated with the auto industry; the copywriters would often say things that amounted to "These tires will hold the car up", and then would be revised later to "These tires will help to hold the car up."
posted by davejay at 3:27 PM on November 23, 2010

You folks aren't answering the question. The OP implies that s/he understands the legality of not claiming 100% effectiveness in words. They're asking why the graphics/animations illustrate it that way as well, even though the graphics themselves are (presumably) not claims.
posted by matildaben at 3:58 PM on November 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Actually, I would take a graphic killing all the blobs on the screen as a scientific claim and definitely be tempted to make a complaint if I saw it. I have enough microbiology education to know that 100% killing never happens and I don't care if they use pictures or numbers, removing all the bobs is still false advertising to me. Whether the complaint is upheld or not, the company still has to fight it.

Plus there's something visual about seeing the number go from very many blobs to very few blobs which reinforces the difference (wow, that is so many less blobs!). Whereas just removing the blobs is not as meaningful somehow, it's no longer a comparison. So I bet there's some pyschology involved as well.
posted by shelleycat at 4:30 PM on November 23, 2010

even though the graphics themselves are (presumably) not claims

I can't imagine why you'd make this presumption.
posted by jon1270 at 4:30 PM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

They're asking why the graphics/animations illustrate it that way as well, even though the graphics themselves are (presumably) not claims.

I don't know whether the graphics themselves are claims, but the presence of an animated depiction of antimicrobial activity has been held to be indicative of an establishment claim.
Whereas a plaintiff typically must adduce evidence that affirmatively shows that an advertising claim is literally false, its burden is somewhat different "when the challenged advertisement relies either implicitly or explicitly on scientific studies"--a so-called "establishment" or "tests-prove" claim. In such cases a plaintiff meets its burden by showing that either the tests relied upon do not prove the proposition for which they are cited or that they are "not sufficiently reliable to permit one to conclude with reasonable certainty" that they prove that claim....Third and finally, in the full context of the Infomercial, the "Sanitizes on Contact" Claims are implied establishment claims because: ... (3) the claims are made in conjunction with animated depictions or diagrams of the sanitizing process..."
Euro-Pro Operating LLC v. Euroflex Ams., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99725 (S.D.N.Y. 2008). I would not be surprised if a court held that the animation itself was a claim or at least had to comport with the more literal claims.

(NB: That is speculation, not legal advice.)
posted by jedicus at 4:32 PM on November 23, 2010

To see an example of OP's question in action, watch this commercial for Lotrimin (where I first noticed this phenomenon). They seem to make a point of cutting away from the foot before all the red spots get zapped away, even though it seems silly that anyone would view the Lotrimin Logo firing a blue laser beam at red light as some kind of legally binding medical claim.

(Note also the tricky use of "nothing cures better," which is used all the time for products based on generic materials. If your product is chemically identical to the competition, then of course nothing will work better! It's like Aquafina saying "NO bottled water has more hydrogen than Aquafina!" Well, duh.)
posted by Rhaomi at 4:48 PM on November 23, 2010

Interestingly, in the UK they do often kill all the germs. The copy for Domestos read "Kills All Known Germs. Dead" for years, too.
posted by bonaldi at 4:55 PM on November 23, 2010

The copy for Domestos read "Kills All Known Germs. Dead" for years, too.

That could be interpreted as saying it kills all known *types* of germs, not all the germs known to be present. Also I don't know what Domestos is, but there are some products which are toxic enough that they kill everything, bacteria or otherwise. So the claim could be valid. Lastly, define 'germs' (bacteria? all microbes? anything small?). That might make a difference too.

I'm sure the rules are different between countries too.
posted by shelleycat at 6:40 PM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think that the "lingering victim" of the product is supposed to give you the impression that the product continues to work, even after the initial application.

I noticed in Rhaomi's Lotrimin example that although the camera cuts away before the red spots all disappear, they definitely seem like they are about to disappear. Same thing with the bugs that get zapped and survive. They may have survived, but they're GOING to die, given time.

It's subtle, but I think that's the intention.
posted by orme at 7:15 PM on November 23, 2010

Under-promise and over-deliver.

(And in advertising, graphics like that are claims, because they are construed to be demonstrations of the product.)
posted by gjc at 7:34 PM on November 23, 2010

And in advertising, graphics like that are claims, because they are construed to be demonstrations of the product.

On the other hand, graphics for cosmetic products don't seem to follow this rule, eg "Look at how the Active Pro Retinol X molecules catch the moisture & draw it into your skin!" - with a silly animation that couldn't possibly reflect reality.

Or maybe that's just an example of a mere powder puff?
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:41 PM on November 23, 2010

Domestos is bleach, fyi.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:26 AM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

That's nice to learn. I always wondered why the filthy toilet in The Young Ones asked "What's Domestos?"

But for another microbial example, think of the animations for how acne treatments supposedly "work": rub some of this stuff on, then the stuff follows the arrows down into the skin, then it comes back up again, and the inflamed pore lifts & flattens itself out. It's maybe an OK analogy for how the product works, but way short of a "demonstration".
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:12 AM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Domestos may "Kills All Known Germs. Dead" but it's the ones you don't know about that'll kill you!
posted by gallagho at 2:26 AM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

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