FOR RELEASE: DECEMBER 30, 1993
UNOCAL, UNION OIL OF CA, LEO BURNETT SETTLE GASOLINE AD CHARGES: Gas Companies Agree to Remind Consumers to Check Owner's Manuals for Proper Octane Gas to Buy
Unocal Corporation, its advertising agency, Leo Burnett Company, Inc., and Union Oil Company of California have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they made unsubstan- tiated performance superiority claims in advertising for Unocal's 89 and 92 octane gasoline grades. Under the settlement, all three companies have agreed not to make claims about the attributes or performance of any gasoline without first having scientific evi- dence to back them up. In addition, Unocal and Union Oil will mail their credit-card customers in five states a corrective notice stating that most cars don't need a high octane gasoline to perform properly, and reminding the customers to check their owner's manuals for the proper octane level of gas to purchase.
Union Oil of California is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Unocal; both are based in Los Angeles. Leo Burnett is the Chicago-based advertising agency that created and disseminated the radio and television ads that included the octane-related claims at issue in the case. Unocal also created an advertisement inserted with bills sent to its credit card customers that made similar claims. An octane rating is a measure of a gasoline's ability to resist automotive engine "knock" or "ping," resulting from an uneven burning of the compressed fuel-air mixture.
According to the FTC's complaint detailing the charges, the challenged ads included statements such as:
-- "...you can't trust your investment to just any gasoline. That's why 76 developed our 92 unleaded. It's the highest level octane gasoline you can buy to help your car run better, longer"; and
- more - Unocal/Leo Burnett--12/30/93)
-- "Compared to regular unleaded, our 89 octane will give your car smoother starts and stops...."
The FTC alleged that, through these and other statements, Unocal, Union Oil and Leo Burnett have represented that Unocal's 89 and 92 octane gasolines provide superior engine performance and longevity as compared to regular unleaded gasoline. According to the complaint, the respondents did not have a reasonable basis to substantiate these representations.
The proposed consent agreement to settle these charges, announced today for public comment, would require all three respondents to have competent and reliable scientific evidence to support any future representations about:
-- the superiority of Unocal 92 or 89 in providing engine power or acceleration for any car;
-- the superiority of Unocal 92 or 89 in prolonging engine longevity; or
-- the attributes or performance of any gasoline with respect to engine power, acceleration, longevity or any other performance characteristic.
The corrective notice required by the settlement would have to be mailed to all Unocal credit-card customers in Oregon, Washington, Nevada, California and Hawaii (the states in which Unocal's credit-card customers received the challenged bill inserts). In addition to the reminder about checking their owners' manuals for the proper octane level gasoline for their cars, the notice would advise consumers to purchase the lowest octane gasoline their cars can use without engine knocking or pinging.
The FTC vote to announce the complaint and proposed consent agreement for public comment was 5-0, although Commissioners Deborah K. Owen and Roscoe B. Starek, III, issued statements in which they dissented in part. Commissioner Owen dissented with respect to the alleged claims in one ad for Unocal 92 octane. Owen said that, based on the ad itself and the available extrinsic evidence, she does not find reason to believe that the ad conveys the message that Unocal 92 "provides significantly superior engine performance and longevity for automobiles generally, as opposed to for high performance automobiles."
Commissioner Starek dissented insofar as the complaint char- ges Leo Burnett with liability for the Octane 89 claims, noting in his statement that the advertising agency "made substantial, good faith pre-dissemination efforts to determine whether its 89 octane claim was substantiated." Starek also noted that, while Leo Burnett possessed some conflicting data, Commission precedent (Unocal/Leo Burnett--12/30/93)
dictates that, "with respect to a claim requiring complex scien- tific substantiation...where an advertising agency requested and relied upon evidence that provided some scientific basis for the claim," possession of some conflicting evidence does not put the agency on notice that the substantiation is inadequate.
The consent will be published in the Federal Register shortly and will be subject to public comment for 60 days, after which the Commission will decide whether to make it final and binding. Com- ments should be addressed to the FTC, Office of the Secretary, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580.
NOTE: A consent agreement is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute an admission of a law violation. When the Commission issues a consent order on a final basis, it carries the force of law with respect to future actions. Each violation of such an order may result in a civil penalty of $10,000.
Copies of the complaint, proposed consent, the Commissioners' statements, and a free FTC fact sheet for consumers about octane ratings, are available from the FTC's Public Reference Branch, Room 130, at the above address; 202-326-2222; TTY for the hearing impaired 1-866-653-4261. # # #
MEDIA CONTACT: Bonnie Jansen, Office of Public Affairs 202-326-2161
STAFF CONTACT: Sue L. Frauens, Los Angeles Regional Office 11000 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 13209 Los Angeles, California 90024 310-575-7890
(FTC File No. 922 3123) (UNOCAL)