“Advertising may be described as the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it.” – Stephen Butler Leacock
In a crowded market where lots of products are basically pretty similar to each other, the claims a product makes can be crucial. So it isn’t surprising that companies make a lot of claims for their products. What is more surprising is the number of claims made for what isn’t in products.
The first brand to do this in a big way was Simple back in the eighties. It is easy to forget what a radical move that was at the time. The Body Shop had blazed the trail to some extent, but even they continued (and indeed continue) to make products that contained synthetic fragrances and sported bright colours. And while they talked about the natural products they used, they continued to put them into pretty conventional bases. Simple’s approach was to avoid fragrances and colours altogether. They never spelled out what they thought was wrong with colours or fragrances, but they did emphasise the mildness of their range.
But although Simple seemed radical thirty years ago, it looks positively conservative today. There are brands out there that contain a lot less stuff! In fact marketing your products on the basis of what they don’t contain has become so common that it is close to being a universal feature. Even the biggest players are in on it. L’Oreal can now launch a range of sulfate free shampoos. (They don’t seem to be particularly embarrassed by the fact that are still selling shampoos that do contain sulfates.)
Free from claims really are the ideal marketing concept. They suggest there is something special about your brand while casting doubt on everybody elses’. And you don’t even have to pay for the ingredient you are talking about. Great stuff! You can see why they are popular. As we speak people in meeting rooms around the world are probably poring over ingredient lists looking for things that aren’t in them that they can make a marketing story out of.
The trouble with free from claims is that while they are great for the product making the claim, they tend to reinforce the general impression that all chemicals are bad for you and to give perfectly good ingredients a totally undeserved bad name. What is wrong with sulfates for example. As it happens, absolutely nothing. Which is just as well because you come into contact with them every day even if you never shampoo your hair.
The EU is trying to do something about it in some new legislation that comes into force next year. It makes it illegal to make a free from claim for a product that would never have contained that ingredient in the first place. For instance, you won’t be able to claim that a soap is paraben free because you wouldn’t normally need to put a preservative in soap.
This might help a bit, but I don’t think it will have much impact. It wouldn’t have affected L’Oreal’s big budget campaign to sell sulfate free shampoo for example. The only thing that is going to stop it is if consumers make it clear to companies that they aren’t interested in what their products don’t contain. Insist on buying products that actually do something for you.