Lanham Act Dust Up Over Vacuum Cleaner Claims Clarifies Literally False Standard

A federal district court in Massachusetts was recently sucked into a false advertising dispute between manufacturers of competing vacuums and steam cleaners over alleged violations of Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act. The plaintiff, Euro-Pro Operating LLC (“Euro-Pro”), which manufactures the popular “Shark” steam mop and “Shark Navigator” vacuum, filed suit against the defendant, TTI Floor Care North America (“TTI”), alleging false advertising and unfair competition in connection with certain superiority claims made in infomercials for TTI’s “TwinTank” steam mop and “WindTunnel” vacuum cleaner.

Euro-Pro moved for a preliminary injunction, alleging that the infomercial contained false claims based on rigged, deceptive product demonstrations (e.g., comparing the stain-removing ability of a “revved up” TwinTank to a Shark product that was not properly warmed up prior to use). Euro-Pro argued that the claims and demonstrations were literally false because objective tests with measurable results proved them false. In denying the motion, the district court clarified how the literal falsity test applies to contested claims and product demonstrations.

Lanham Act Background

Section 43(a) gives competitors a private right of action to challenge false advertising claims and other forms of unfair competition. It provides that:

"Any person who, on or in connection with any goods or services, or any container for goods, uses in commerce any word, term, name, symbol, or device, or any combination thereof, or any false designation of origin, false or misleading description of fact, or false or misleading representation of fact, which . . . in commercial advertising or promotion, misrepresents the nature, characteristics, qualities, or geographic origin of his or her or another person’s goods, services, or commercial activities, shall be liable in a civil action by any person who believes that he or she is or is likely to be damaged by such act."

15 U.S.C § 1125(a)(1)(B).

A Lanham Act false advertising claim has five elements: (1) a false or misleading claim in a commercial advertisement about defendant’s or another’s product; (2) materiality, such that the misrepresentation is likely to influence a consumer’s purchasing decision; (3) that the misrepresentation actually deceives or has the tendency to deceive a substantial segment of the audience; (4) that the defendant placed the false or misleading statement in interstate commerce; and (5) injury to the plaintiff. Cashmere & Camel Hair Mfrs. Inst. v. Saks Fifth Ave., 284 F.3d 302, 310-11 (1st Cir. 2002).

As for the first element, a plaintiff can allege one of two types of false claims: (1) a literally false claim or (2) a claim that, though literally true, is nevertheless misleading. A plaintiff relying on a misleading (as opposed to a literally false) claim has an additional burden of coming forward with evidence of how consumers actually reacted to the challenged advertisement and will typically seek to meet this burden by introducing consumer survey data. Here, Euro-Pro proceeded solely on the theory of literal falsity and, accordingly, did not present data demonstrating that consumers were actually deceived by the ads.

The District Court’s Analysis of Literal Falsity

In its analysis of Euro-Pro’s motion, the district court addressed each category of TTI’s claims and product demonstrations that Euro-Pro contended were false:

  • the claim that the TwinTank renders other steam mops “obsolete”;
  • a demonstration comparing the ability of the TwinTank and the Shark to remove permanent marker stains;
  • a demonstration comparing the ability of the TwinTank and the Shark to remove automotive grease stains;
  • a demonstration comparing the ability of the WindTunnel and the Shark Navigator to vacuum underneath a chair;
  • a demonstration comparing the durability of the WindTunnel’s HEPA filter to that of the Shark Navigator;
  • the claim that the WindTunnel has a “super-sized capacity dust cup which holds 25% more dirt than the competition”;
  • a demonstration comparing the ability of children to assemble a WindTunnel and Shark Navigator; and
  • a demonstration portraying the WindTunnel crushing numerous five-gallon water cooler jugs with its suction power.

For each of these claims, the district court engaged in a two-step analysis to assess plaintiff’s contention of literal falsity. First, it determined what (if any) specific, unambiguous claim the advertisement either explicitly stated or necessarily implied. Second, it determined whether the specific claim was false. See Memorandum and Order, pp. 7-8.

Of the eight categories of claims examined by the district court, six focused on allegedly false product demonstrations. The court found that none of these demonstrations stated or implied any specific, unambiguous claim and, accordingly, the court did not need to reach the issue of falsity. For example, in discussing the market stain demonstration (which showed the TwinTank removing the stain with ease, while the Shark struggled to remove the stain only partially), the court observed that:

"Consumers could draw various messages from the demonstration, ranging from “the TwinTank always cleans any hard surface better than the Shark” to “under certain conditions, the TwinTank may clean tile better than the Shark,” to “the tile on the left has been stained more severely than the tile on the right. Neither these nor any other specific conclusion, however, is necessarily implied by the demonstration, precluding a finding of literal falsity."

Although the two non-demonstration claims engendered greater discussion, the court ultimately ruled that Euro-Pro fell short of proving a literally false statement as to those, too.

As for the claim that the WindTunnel has a “super-sized capacity dust cup which holds 25% more dirt than the competition,” the court observed that Euro-Pro’s objection to this claim is stronger than its other objections because the WindTunnel’s dust cup does not, in fact, hold 25% more dirt than the Shark Navigator. However, the court found that the claim did not state or imply a specific unambiguous claim because the phrase “25% more than the competition” could be read to mean 25% more than an average of all competitive products, not 25% more than each competitive product.

Finally, as for the “obsolete” claim, the court found that such a claim is likely non-actionable puffery, or exaggerated advertising, blustering and boasting upon which no reasonable buyer would rely. Memorandum and Order, pp. 8-14.

Key Takeaways

The district court’s decision is important because it signals that plaintiffs seeking to prove a Lanham Act violation on a theory of literal falsity may face an uphill battle in this district unless the disputed claim can be interpreted to have only one clear meaning. Because product demonstrations are susceptible to multiple interpretations, they may not be found sufficiently unambiguous and specific to support a theory of literal falsity. Moreover, even claims containing specific, readily falsifiable figures (e.g., “25% stronger”) may not be found literally false in this district if more than one interpretation of the claim is possible. In light of this ruling, plaintiffs might want to consider coming forward with consumer survey data even where they are proceeding purely on a theory of literal falsity. Alternatively, aggrieved competitors might consider bringing a claim in the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Better Business Bureau, where the burden of proof is on the advertiser, rather than bringing a Lanham Act a claim in state or federal court, where the burden of proof is on the challenger. The pros and cons of pursuing claims in NAD have been addressed in prior blog posts.