Judge Robinson: Lanham Act Opinion Involving Neutrogena and Coppertone Sunscreens

Plaintiffs Schering-Plough HealthCare Products, Inc. (makers of Coppertone-brand sunscreen) brought an action under Section 43 of the Lanham Act against Neutrogena Corporation (makers of Neutrogena-brand sunscreen) for releasing advertisements containing false and misleading statements. Defendants counter-claimed under the Act based on advertisements by Plaintiffs.

Defendant’s advertisements involved a bar graph showing “UVA” and SPF ratings for the competing products:
Plaintiffs argued that the graphs were misleading, and the Court agreed, based on the literal falsity of the graph’s “double-counting” of UVA protection. The upper, yellow portion of the graph represents the sunscreen’s UVA protection, while the bottom, red portion of the graph represents the SPF rating. According to the Court, however, the red portion of the graph is based on an SPF measurement that already accounts for UVA protection. Thus, by adding the yellow portion of the graph, Defendants were double-counting their UVA protection, which was literal falsity. The Court was unpersuaded by Defendants’ argument that the falsity affected the graphs of both products: “While it is true that these errors are present with respect to both products compared in the graph, the absence of bias caused by the double-counting does not eliminate the falsity of the message.” Id. at 12.

Defendants asserted a counterclaim based on claims made in Plaintiff’s TV ads. The ads involved an establisment claim that Plaintiff’s sunscreen provided “better coverage,” as well as text apparently asserting that Defendant’s spray sunscreen consisted of “28% Propellant”:
The Court held in favor of Defendants on both claims. For the establishment claim, the Court held that Plaintiffs had failed to actually test the properties of the products in the ad, and that “[t]his type of unsubstantiated ‘scientific’ claim is precisely what the Lanham Act seeks to prevent.” For the “28% Propellant” statement, the Court held that

“The overlay of the words “Neutrogena” and “28% propellant” on the (bare) chest of one of the athletes (as compared to, for example, pictures of the respective cans) reinforces the message that 72% sunscreen and 28% propellant is applied to the body, rather than merely contained inside the can. There is no qualifying statement or language from which a consumer could conclude that the propellant is not deposited onto the skin in this amount or, alternatively, that the sunscreen (lotion) expelled by the can is 100% (and not 72%) sunscreen. This is an unambiguous message conveyed by necessary implication and, therefore, is literally false.”

Id. at 24.

The Court also took this opportunity to make a comment about the state of the sunscreen market:

The court notes that these advertisements were essentially meaningless and, therefore, of no help to the consuming public who, finally, is paying attention to the health concerns presented by overexposure to the sun. Both parties failed in their efforts to walk that fine line between literal truthfulness and consumer deception in advertising. Sadly, it is the American consumer who ultimately ends up the real loser in these advertising wars.

Id. at fn. 29.

Schering-Plough Healthcare Products, Inc. v. Neutrogena Corp., C.A. No. 09-268-SLR (D. Del. Apr. 8, 2010)

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