Yesterday, I walked by a bus shelter on Van Ness and did a double take. I saw this seemingly standard ad for Listerine:
What made me stop was the claim in the headline, “If you think it’s just for your mouth, think bigger.” What? Listerine does more than simply clean my mouth? Reading the fine print, I discovered what Listerine was trying to tout:
“Emerging science suggests that there may be a link between the health of your mouth and the health of your body. Physicians and dentists don’t yet know the exact connection, but several theories exist. And because a healthy mouth is one thing everyone agrees is important, there’s Listerine — proven to help keep your mouth healthier by killing germs that cause plaque and gingivitis.*”
Emerging science? Doctors don’t know the connection? Theories? This is supposed to convince me to drop everything to go over to Walgreen’s a buy a bottle of mouthwash? Here’s a close up of the claim:
Advertising claims are closely regulated by the FTC, so I knew that if Listerine was going to make a claim as ambiguous as “emerging science” claiming a link between a “healthy mouth” and a “healthy body,” there would need to be some sort of evidence that Listerine used to make that claim.
It turns out that Listerine just launched its “emerging science” campaign last week, and has a website dedicated to the claims it is making. The site and corresponding press release explain that “while a causal link has not been established,” gingivitis, if allowed to progress to gum disease, “may contribute to broader health problems” including “cardiovascular diseases, pre-term low birth weight, diabetes and stroke.” Those are fairly hefty claims that Listerine is alluding to, especially since they have no true evidence to back it up. Listerine even goes out of its way to provide the obligatory legal line:
“It is important to note, however, that a cause and effect relationship between periodontal disease and systemic diseases has not been established. What is known is that emerging science suggests an association.”
So wait a second here. There may or may not be a cause and effect relationship between gum disease and say, diabetes? Why is Listerine even bothering to move forward with a campaign that has so little to say, and such vague associations? The reality is that advertising makes these sort of claims all the time, but generally, even so, the claims have more evidence backing up the claim than just the vague phrase “emerging science.” Digging through their site, little information is provided, with unclear references to “studies” and “theories” without providing concrete evidence. It seems so strange that Listerine would focus its ad dollars on promoting a claim with no proven causality.