Curbing Deceptive Marketing

RECIPE TO RETAIL: Part 19…

deceptive marketingConsumers don’t like to be manipulated, but brands manipulate us all the time. Case in point, a can of Canada Dry Ginger Ale highlights “Made from Real Ginger”, but “ginger” is nowhere to be found in the ingredient list, only “natural flavours”. As a consequence, consumers filed lawsuits to hold the brand accountable for false advertising.

It is a marketer’s job to influence consumers to buy a product. Some marketers will go to any lengths; twisting words, stretching the truth or outright lying. Not only is that deceptive marketing, it’s unethical and illegal. “Deceptive” is defined as “causing [a person] to believe what is not true, or fail to believe what is true”.

Health Canada’s Food and Drug Regulations exist to “help Canadians make healthy and informed choices about the foods they buy and eat”. The legislation applies to pre-packaged foods distributed by retail stores, restaurants, other foodservice establishments and airlines. Free samples must have compliant labelling too.

Legal requirements also extend to advertising, which includes websites, social media, store flyers and signage, all media and promotional vehicles.

The overarching rule is that food labelling and advertising must be “truthful and not misleading”. This opens up a big can of worms for food marketers.

What are claims?

Health Canada regulates at least ten types of claims, including health, nutrient content, nutrient function, disease risk reduction, negative (free-from), functional, composition, comparative, method of production and quality. Being able to navigate and understand the complex regulations requires a high level of expertise.

Product features and benefits in marketing copy are often considered “claims”. Just about anything you say about a product could be a claim. Even images can imply a claim and mislead consumers.

Questionable marketing lingo

Here is a taste of some statements that are problematic:

  • “Natural” claims are ubiquitous but the regulations spell out specific conditions.
  • “Gluten-free” is a particularly risky claim. Products must meet regulatory requirements and manufacturers need GMPs and preventive controls.
  • “Better” implies a product is being compared with another and requires an explanation.
  • “Canadian” means a product’s processing, labour and more than 98% of the ingredients are of Canadian origin. “Made in Canada” requires a qualifying statement. (Regulations are under review by Health Canada.) And the Canadian flag cannot be used without government permission.
  • Organic statements such as “Made with organic ingredients”, “100% organic (product name)” and “Certified Organic” are not permitted.
  • “All the energy to get you through to the next meal” is misleading and unacceptable.
  • Cereal is not considered a complete breakfast and should not be promoted as such.
  • “Breakfast bar/cookie/drink” suggests the product is a meal replacement for breakfast. Therefore it must meet Health Canada’s nutrient requirements for a meal.
  • “Tonic” cannot be used as a descriptive term for a food product.
  • Some brands use celebrity testimonials or quote articles that tout health benefits. That too is a no-no, unless the statement complies with regulations.
The Solution

My company tackles this challenge as part of our copywriting process, ensuring marketing copy we create for our clients complies with food labelling regulations.

The truth will prevail and truth is based on facts. Use it as your yardstick, and have marketing copy reviewed by a regulatory specialist. Ignorance of the law is no defense.

Lots of brands circumvent the rules, making all kinds of non-compliant claims. If CFIA doesn’t step in, consumers who feel deceived will.


 As a packaged foods consultant, Birgit Blain helps food brands comply with regulations. Her experience includes 17 years with Loblaw Brands and President’s Choice®. Contact her at Birgit@BBandAssoc.com or learn more at www.BBandAssoc.com

© Birgit Blain

This article appeared in Food in Canada magazine.

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