Why Dannon Let Jamie Lee Curtis Tell Lies About Activia

Last Updated Dec 20, 2010 1:24 PM EST

Dannon will only "slightly" alter its Jamie Lee Curtis ads for Activia following its $21 million settlement with the FTC for falsely claiming that the yogurt helps regulate your digestive system, according to Ad Age.

"Slightly?" Perhaps not. The FTC's documents show that the past two years of Activia advertising -- in which Curtis discussed her improved bowel movements in a tasteful, upbeat manner -- were based on lies. Not little lies, either. Here's what Dannon actually knew about the affect of its yogurt:
  • Dannon's claim that Activia speeds up "intestinal transit," is based on studies that only showed that in elderly subjects.
  • Two studies that purported to show Activia was helpful were not statistically significant compared to the placebo groups.
  • Six other studies failed to show a statistically significant improvement in transit time when Activia was compared to a placebo.
  • "In truth and in fact, eating one serving of Activia daily is not clinically proven to relieve temporary irregularity and help with slow intestinal transit time," the FTC said.
That's right: Studies of Activia generally show that it does absolutely nothing to help your digestive system. Dannon is now banned from:
  • Claiming that one daily serving of Activia relieves irregularity, or helps people avoid catching colds or the flu.
  • It may not make any claims about regularity unless it has two properly designed clinical studies showing so.
  • And it can only advertise those claims if it also mentions that consumers must eat three servings of Activia each day to obtain these benefits.
That's a lot of yogurt (21 pots a week!) and a lot of hurdles for Dannon to jump in order to get Curtis back on to her green sofa.

Dannon may not care. Its message is already out -- does anyone still need to be reminded of the Activia-regularity theme? -- and the settlement is a mere fraction of the brand's $505 million annual sales.

There are plenty of examples of big companies (with enough scientists and lawyers to know better) that have been caught by the FTC making misleading health claims about their products: Nestle, POM Wonderful, Bayer, Rexall Sundown and Extenze. But none of the settlements have recovered more than a few million dollars from each company. That suggests the food business may have learned what the drug business already knows: That settlements tend to be much smaller than the revenues you can earn from false advertising, and that FTC action is therefore not a deterrent to misleading consumers. Rather, settlements with the feds can simply be built in to the revenue model, a cost of doing business.


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