A settlement was announced last week in the class-action lawsuit against Kellogg, the company that manufactures Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal.
The settlement was years in the making, and it could mean a few dollars back in the pockets of Maine consumers.
However, the settlement – if approved by a judge – fails to answer some basic questions about what kinds of claims advertisers can and should make about their products.
The Federal Trade Commission filed its case in 2009, charging Kellogg with unfair or deceptive advertising. At issue was a series of TV commercials designed to boost lagging sales of Mini-Wheats by telling moms the cereal could help their children in school.
The TV ads included the claim that Frosted Mini-Wheats had been “clinically shown to improve kids’ attentiveness by nearly 20 percent.” That seemed a stretch to federal watchdogs, at a time when many consumers had a healthy skepticism about sugary foods (a serving of “original” Mini-Wheats today contains 11 grams, or a little under a half ounce, of sugar).
We all want students to do better in school, and Kellogg had hoped mothers who saw their ads would buy Mini-Wheats to help their young scholars. When the FTC challenged Kellogg to back up its claim, the company agreed to tone down the rhetoric while denying any wrongdoing or liability. The company still says it stands by its advertising.
The backed-off ads were termed the “full and focused” campaign. A bowl of fiber-rich cereal will keep the little tummies full, the ads proclaimed, leading to “23 percent better quality of memory” than students who ate no breakfast. Washington Post blogger Jennifer LaRue Huget wrote in May 2009 there was no comparison between the 73 youngsters Kellogg fed and students who ate other kinds of breakfasts, nor was it clear how the company measured its results.
Some nutrition-oriented consumer websites are not all that critical of the content of Mini-Wheats. The Center for Science in the Public Interest says Mini-Wheats meet CSPI’s guidelines for marketing food to children (see www.cspinet.org/marketingguidelines.pdf). Caloriecount.com gives the cereal a nutrition rating of A-, noting that it’s high in niacin, phosphorous, riboflavin and vitamins B6 and B12, as well as fiber, and very high in iron. The bad point, according to the calorie counters, is the 11 grams of sugar per serving (21 biscuits).
Boxes of Mini-Wheats on the market now have the pledge to keep eaters “full and focused all morning.” The proposed settlement orders Kellogg to limit its claims to “Clinical studies have shown that kids who eat a filling breakfast like Frosted Mini-Wheats have an 11 percent better attentiveness in school than kids who skip breakfast,” or similar wording.
Consumers who feel they were misled by the earlier ads, which ran from January 2008 to October 2009, may file claims through a website Kellogg created, www.cerealsettlement.com. Forms can be completed online or printed and mailed. You may also exclude yourself from the settlement or object to the settlement. You can also do nothing.
Consumers who file claims may receive up to $5 per box of Mini-Wheats they purchased, up to a maximum of $15. If the $4 million Kellogg has set aside for these payouts isn’t used up in the first round of claims, it’s possible consumers could receive more.
The settlement should serve as a reminder to food manufacturers that their claims need to pass the straight-face test as well as clearing their lawyers’ desks. Until they do, we should all read food packaging with a healthy dose of skepticism.
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