Blogs & Comment

Nivea's pretty thin evidence

A skin cream marketer's travails with regulators reveals what lies beneath compelling advertising claims.

(Photo: IMAGEMORE Co, Ltd/Getty)

What kind of research supports the marketing claims so often conveyed through consumer product commercials? In the case of skin-cream marketer Beiersdorf, precious little.

Beiersdorf owns the Nivea skin care product brand. In 2008 it began selling a skin cream called My Silhouette! redefining gel-cream. Its ingredients included white tea and anise (a flowering plant native to Southwest Asia and the Mediterranean), which combined formed something the company dubbed a “Bio-slim Complex.” One commercial featured an impressively nubile female extracting presumably long-unworn jeans from her closet and porting them with unbridled enthusiasm, while a male (with presumed romantic links) looked on admiringly. The voice-over claimed the cream “visibly firms skin in just four weeks” and “helps reshape your body’s appearance and the way you see yourself.” The company also cut a deal with Google, so that consumers searching for “thin waist” and “stomach fat” would see the product’s website as a sponsored result. That website, and the product’s packaging, claimed the cream could cause a “ reduction of up to 3 centimetres on targeted body parts, such as thighs, hips, waist and stomach.” Supermodel and talk-show host Tyra Banks touted the brand on her program, and continues to do so today on her website.

Commercial possibilities for such a versatile topical cream would be, of course, enormous. But Beiersdorf’s claims rested on a dubious foundation, which proved an unfortunate state of affairs when regulators came knocking. In June, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission settled with the company. “In truth and in fact, regular use of My Silhouette does not result in significant reductions in body size,” the FTC alleged in its complaint, before concluding that Beiersdorf’s ads were “false or misleading.” Beiersdorf agreed to pay the FTC US$900,000 to put the matter to rest.

Next up was Canada’s Competition Bureau. On Wednesday it reached its own settlement with the product’s Canadian distributor, Beiersdorf Canada. Beiersdorf agreed to immediately deshelve the product and pay $300,000 in penalties, plus $80,000 to cover the bureau’s costs. It must also refund Canadian consumers whose ample thighs remained stubbornly impervious to Beiersdorf’s technology.

It’s intriguing how long bogus marketing claims can endure unchallenged, and how profitable they might be. When Beiersdorf introduced the product in 2008, CEO Thomas Quaas hailed it as an “important” innovation. “Our Nivea research people, they have developed the so-called natural Bio-Slim Complex, that is white tea and anise extracts,” he told shareholders on a conference call. “So those two active ingredients are supposed to do the job in that product. They make fat cells smaller and they prevent them from growing back again, so the claim is that the first slimming results are measurable after already four weeks.”

An uncritical media repeated the company’s assertions: Britain’s Daily Mirror claimed the cream “is proven to leave your thighs slimmer and your skin toned in only four weeks.” The seemingly more respectable Pharmacy News reported, “White tea contains catechins, which inhibit the process of fat cell generation by stimulating thermogenesis. When applied to the skin, it stimulates the breakdown of fat cells via lipid metabolism, slowing down the accumulation of fat cells.” After polling readers, Shape magazine’s editors declared the product one of the best of 2009.

Although Beiersdorf hasn’t admitted to violating any laws, it also evidently couldn’t supply any evidence to satisfy the regulators. What would suffice? According to its settlement agreement with the FTC, Beiersdorf can resume making the claims only after completing the appropriate research:

Competent and reliable scientific evidence shall consist of at least two adequate and well-controlled human clinical studies of the Covered Product, or of an Essentially Equivalent Product, conducted by different researchers, independently of each other, that conform to acceptable designs and protocols and whose results, when considered in light of the entire body of relevant and reliable scientific evidence, are sufficient to substantiate that the representation is true.

Previous complaints about Beiersdorf’s advertising suggest the company’s own standards are somewhat less rigorous. For example, in 2005 Britain’s Advertising Standards Agency received a complaint about a televised ad for Nivea’s Body Triple Action conditioning lotion, which claimed the product “protects…tones…smoothes.” On-screen text said, “82% agreed, minimum 95 women tested.” Although that’s hardly a massive sample size, the viewers’ complaint that these claims were unscientific was rejected; the ASA said it “did not expect skin ‘toning’ claims to be supported by independent scientific evidence.” However, it upheld a subsequent complaint about a 2006 magazine ad for Nivea DNAge cell renewal day cream, which it concluded wrongly implied the product made women’s skin firmer. The ASA also found that although a footnote to the ad reported 126 women “agreed” the product performed as advertised, in fact 126 had been polled—only 70% of those women in fact agreed.

Most intriguingly, in 2009 a beauty trade journal claimed Beiersdorf used a body scanner to test My Silhouette! products on 28 women. The subjects (aged 24 to 44) allegedly used the product twice daily, “showed reductions of up to 3 cm.” What the FTC and Competition Bureau made of this, if anything, is not recorded in the settlement documents published by those organizations.

Cosmetic fans needn’t fret that the recent false advertising penalties will unduly harm Beiersdorf. The amounts seem inconsequential to a company that reported sales of more than 6.2 billion (about $8.6 billion) last year. In fact, in its 2008 annual report, Beiersdorf cited the cream among the products contributing to its 10% sales growth. One might speculate the unsupported claims paid for themselves.