If you are a coffee drinker like me, you can appreciate the struggles endured in keeping our teeth nice and shiny. So, if a brand screams that its product “immediately brightens them” - it definitely grabs my attention (and money). Well, it also grabbed the attention of some unhappy consumers, and the Advertising Standards Authority ("ASA"), which has upheld complaints about two ads by HiSmile, the popular oral-care brand. HiSmile has been in some boiling-hot waters with the ASA recently, as this is their second upheld ruling this month. If you are a brand or a marketer challenging the status quo in your communications, keep reading. 

The ads

The ads in question were two paid-for Instagram and TikTok video ads. They advertised HiSmile's V34 Colour Corrector ("V34").

The Instagram ad caption claimed that V34 “cancels stains in 30 seconds”. The video itself showed people revealing whiter teeth immediately after applying the solution. It also included demonstrations on a banana skin and a yellow balloon, both of which revealed a colour change to white. A voice-over stated that V34 melted away yellow stains “upon application” and “immediately brightens” teeth when in contact with them. 

The second, TikTok ad, featured a man resembling a medical professional. He described effects of tea or coffee on staining teeth and said that V34 could be applied to “instantly conceal those stains”. The ad showed people brushing their teeth and revealing their pearly whites. 

An investigation was launched following two complaints which challenged whether the ads misleadingly exaggerated the teeth whitening capability.

HiSmile's response 

HiSmile said their product created a brighter appearance by cancelling out stains, rather than instant whitening, and that they held science-backed substantiations for all claims made. 

With regards to their audience, HiSmile provided information from Meta Advertising Resources, which stated that 61% of its Instagram audience were between 18-34 years old and therefore “sufficiently mature.. and circumspect to recognise the obvious exaggeration in the use of the banana or other objects…”. As to their TikTok ad, HiSmile reiterated that they referred to whiter appearance of teeth using correcting technology, rather than teeth whitening. 

HiSmile therefore believed that the impression created to an average consumer was that the purple colour cancelled out the stains and not that teeth were whitened instantly. 

Bleaching the Facts

The ASA was not swayed and considered the ads to be misleading and unsubstantiated, in breach of CAP Code rules 3.1 (Misleading advertising) and 3.7 (Substantiation).

It considered that an average consumer would understand both ads to mean that the V34 gets rid of stains immediately and makes teeth appear whiter and brighter, not permanently, but lasting beyond short-term eating and drinking. 

ASA was not persuaded by HiSmile's substantiation of six documents and a PowerPoint presentation. One of those document was a study conducted by an Emeritus Professor in Dental Sciences, which, based on three tests, said that the V34 caused teeth to appear brighter after one brush cycle. However, the ASA did not agree with this study being described as “independent”, because it did not describe the Professor's relationship with the brand. It also was not overly satisfied with the volume of tests, as two of them were conducted on the study author.

Take home

Understanding how a consumer will perceive claims made in an ad is crucial. Whilst HiSmile's claims may not be incorrect, they over (or under?) estimated how a consumer would interpret their exaggerations. From this point onwards, their substantiations were not fit for purpose. 

As such, perhaps the key omission by HiSmile was failing to make it clear that products such as V34 are intended to be used by those who had already undergone more traditional teeth whitening treatment, as a way of “topping up” their minimal stains. Whilst this could have been deciphered after some analysis, advertisers must make such key information immediately known. The average consumer expected the same, instant result that would be achieved through bleaching or teeth whitening, despite the distinction between them and colour correction being made in the ads. 

Another obvious, but also a crucial, takeaway is to uphold the integrity of studies by disclosing the nature of the relationship between the brand and author. It may well be that the study author has no commercial relationship and in this case, HiSmile was punished for failing to make the relationship explicitly clear.