In the Matter of Kellogg Company, a corporation, FTC File No. 0823145, Proposed Consent Agreement
Kellogg, File No. 0823145 The FTC wishes to prohibit Kellogg Company from advertising that eating Frosted Mini-Wheats improves children's attention by nearly 20%* because their own calculation from the same data shows improvement of only 10.6%. I think 20%* is not false or misleading. The number and its footnote provide enough information for us to understand it. If 20%* fails to measure up to our expectations of scientific accuracy and disinterestedness, the problem is our expectations rather and not the number. Kellogg gives a rather clever imitation of scientific research in their advertisements, but 20%* provides plenty of clues that the scenario is a fantasy. At first glance, nearly 20%* looks like a meaningless number. The advertising asterisk alerts us that 20%* is no more likely to be exactly true than FREE* in another advertisement. The footnote clarifies the exaggeration promised by nearly, that 20%* is rounded up from 18%, and it explains who paid for the study and enough about how the study was conducted--most importantly that the comparison group ate no breakfast--to confirm our initial suspicion that 20%* is not a result of serious research. Kellogg even points out in one of the longer advertisements the obvious interpretation that eating breakfast rather than eating Mini-Wheats made the difference. My interpretation of 20%* is that Kellogg wants people to buy Mini-Wheats rather than that Kellogg has contributed to medical research. I am reminded of a consent order by the FCC in the early 1970's protecting American shoppers from a misleading television advertisement for bread that showed a toddler growing to adulthood in only a few seconds, and I still wonder if even a single person bought a loaf of that bread hoping it would perform as advertised. The advertising asterisk replaces virtually, meaning not in fact, and tells us we are in the world of imagination, the world where a child full of Mini-Wheats pays full attention to the needs of parents and teachers and where, if a mother buys a loaf of the advertised bread, her irritating toddler will grow up and get an apartment this afternoon. These scenarios suggest appealing fantasies, and people may buy foods because of an association with an appealing fantasy, but that does not mean that they have believed an incorrect fact. Kellogg is obviously pushing the numbers around, but their exaggeration is clearly marked as exaggeration. If the FTC wishes to evaluate 20%* as a result of medical research, they should note that Kellogg magnifies the benefit of the intervention and reports only the benefit in the most responsive subgroup in the same way researchers do in peer-reviewed medical journals, and in the same way health charities and government agencies present their health information. It amounts to usual practice. The FTC order challenges Kellogg to create competent and reliable scientific evidence that substantiates the representation should they wish to use any percentages in the future. With their experience from this study, Kellogg should have no difficulty shoring up their initial data according to usual practice in medical research. Among health recommendations, if we insist on taking it literally, Kellogg's claim is not even remarkably inaccurate. But, if Kellogg changes 20%* to the 10.6% preferred by the FTC or frames a more general statement about improving attention without any number, the result might be more accurate but also more misleading simply because 20%* looks like fantasy rather than like a legitimate medical claim, and the fantasy that Mini-Wheats make children attentive does not need to be moved into the ordinary world where people seriously expect Mini-Wheats to perform as advertised. I am willing to believe that Kellogg Company exaggerated with 20%*, and they may have hoped we would respond as the FTC is responding--accepting the proposition and reducing any debate to discussion of exactly how much Mini-Wheats improve attention. But we are pestered constantly with numbers, and the problem is not so much that exaggerated numbers are unfair and should be banned as that we want and expect numbers to be fair and true and completely stripped of purpose. The dollars used by the FTC and Kellogg on 20%* might better be used to educate adults and children about the purposes that create numbers and that accompany numbers--your numbers, my numbers, everyone's numbers. People who knew more about counting would not expect any number to conform to an ideal of truthfulness and would less susceptible to the numerical and statistical chicanery about health research that is genuinely misleading and far more pernicious than the obviously fanciful 20%*. Daryll Anderson, M.D., Ph.D.