There’s no denying the proliferation of advertisements these days. As competitive product and service categories become increasingly hungry for the strongest ad claims and most compelling evidence to sway consumers, advertisers have an obligation to uphold the relevant laws and regulations surrounding claims substantiation.
What is claims research?
An obvious tool for coming up with this evidence is the long time go-to tool of surveys. For example, a tooth paste marketer wanting to make a claim about the percentage of people who saw whiter teeth after using their product might conduct a survey, the results of which can be used to substantiate their claim.
Specialized studies in marketing research that focus on proving or disproving claims made in advertising are known as claims substantiation studies. Also known as claims research. Claims research designs can vary widely across product categories and the types of claims attempting to be made.
Why is it necessary?
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforces advertising standards under the Federal Trade Commission Act, mandating that advertisements be fair and non-deceptive, and that advertisers back-up their claims. Prior to running an advertisement, the FTC requires that the company proposing an advertisement have a “reasonable basis” for the claims. In other words, the company must have objective evidence supporting their claim. All of these standards hold true across all mediums – TV, online, magazines, billboards, radio, you name it.
While the FTC is the premier enforcer, there are other state and federal agencies that can become involved. This is especially true when claims are challenged at the state court level.
When does it need to be done?
Luckily, not all claims in advertising require claims substantiation research. Whether they do or not is a question of whether the claim is viewed as fact or opinion. Simply put, if the claim is viewed as fact, it needs substantiation. If the claim is viewed as opinion, it does not.
This is where puffery comes into play. The FTC defines puffery as “term frequently used to denote the exaggerations reasonably to be expected of a seller as to the degree of quality of his product, the truth or falsity of which cannot be precisely determined,” but in short, puffery is just exaggerations about a product or service that are subjective and that no reasonable person would presume to be the literal truth.
It is important to note that the context in which a claim appears can necessitate substantiation, even if the claim itself would be considered puffery. A good example of this is if the claim is shown with a competitive brand in the background.
Lastly, if it is determined that claims research is needed, it should always be done before the claim is made.
What does it need to prove?
The ultimate goal of claims research is to prove that a given advertisement has evidence that is scientifically reliable and competent. The type of evidentiary support needed depends on whether a claim is “performance”, which requires objective testing as support, or “sensory”, which is supportable with consumer-perception evidence; in any case, simply qualitative research is not acceptable for claims research.
To exemplify the above distinction, “whitens better” is an example of a performance claim, which requires objective testing, while “looks whiter” exemplifies a sensory claim, which is sufficiently supported with consumer-perception evidence. As a note, a marketing researcher must ensure that all reasonable interpretations of a claim being tested are supported, even messages that the advertisers may not have indented to communicate.
Who makes up the sample?
Proper claim substantiation must be done with a sample that is representative of the population. The population in this case is those on whom the claim is based (i.e. product category users), including appropriate demographic and geographic coverage. The population can also be comprised of people who would consider product or category usage.
With respect to populations to avoid: product purchasers or target market audiences should not be treated as the population, as these groups are not representative. As a note, sample sizes can vary, but they must be sizable enough to produce statistical significance.
Where is it conducted?
The objectivity of a claim is a good indicator of where the claims research should be conducted. The more objective it is, the more likely the claim should be tested in a lab-style setting. The more subjective it is, the more likely the claim should be tested with a consumer perception study. It is very important that when consumer perception studies are used, the researcher should match the conditions of the study environment to the true conditions a consumer would face when encountering a product or service on the market in real life. The researcher should aim to emulate these conditions, while also balancing for experimental control.
To avoid potentially devastating repercussions, advertisers should enlist the help of marketing researchers to conduct claims research prior to propagating an advertisement claim. They’ll be well to do their due diligence in distinguishing between puffery and non-puffery and conducting claims research accordingly. This will ultimately aid in maximizing consumer interest in the product or service in question, while also minimizing liability.