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The Bombay High Court (HC) on Tuesday said that German personal care brand Sebamed can continue comparative advertisements naming fast-moving consumer goods major Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) soap brands Dove, Pears and Lux as long as it is backed by right scientific data. However, the company must remove HUL's detergent brand Rin reference from campaigns which compare the pH level of soap brands Pears and Dove to that of Rin.

Noting that multiple ingredients are responsible for the mildness or harshness of a soap, the court said that using pH alone to compare products can mislead consumers. It has also asked Sebamed to use words 'ideal' and 'non-ideal' while showing a pH scale in its ads instead of safe and unsafe. pH is a measure of how acidic a product is, that is, the lower the pH value, the better it is for the skin.

The court gave the judgement after recording the comments from the both the companies.

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"The honourable Judge permitted the Sebamed advertisement qua Dove to continue as it is with no changes, and for Lux, Pears and Santoor to continue after removing the segment relating to detergent bar. The Honourable Judge agreed that a fact based scientific comparison did not amount to disparagement and parties are free to mention names of competitor brands as long as there is evidence backed comparison," a Sebamed statement said.

HUL said that it had submitted to the Court that the advertisement campaign in question denigrated its brands and products, did not take into account the full formulations of the products in question, thereby misleading consumers only on the basis of pH.

"Sebamed has been restrained from disparaging our products Pears and Lux, and comparing them with detergent soaps. We are reviewing the Hon’ble High Court’s order, and will explore all options in the interest of our consumers. There is nothing like a perfect pH value, as it varies across the human body and from person-to-person based on several factors, even the time of day, skin is tested," said a company spokesperson.

Shashi Ranjan, India country head, Sebamed, meanwhile, told Mint that the company, which boasts of a skin and haircare range with pH 5.5 benefits, will continue to run its existing ads making the necessary changes ordered by the high court.

"It is our obligation to provide customers with the required information backed by robust science and strong research. We will continue to educate customers by providing free pH kits so that they can trust their personal care products at home and make an informed choice. Brand building is an ongoing journey where we have started with awareness creation through a visual demonstration of our product benefits we will continue to use various media platforms to further strengthen our product range," he added.

The fall out between the two firms began when Sebamed on 8 January launched a campaign comparing HUL's Lux and Pears to detergent brand Rin, claiming that the beauty soaps did not maintain the optimal 5.5 pH level meant for sensitive skin. HUL retaliated with a campaign on 10 January highlighting the trust of dermatologists on its soap bar Dove and also took the matter to the Bombay high court.

Sebamed claimed Hindustan Unilever approached the court without giving a prior notice. On 11 January, the Bombay HC granted an ad-interim ex-parte injunction against the Sebamed ads restraining USV Pvt. Ltd, which retails Sebamed in India, and its affiliates, and advertising agencies from using, telecasting or broadcasting or communicating to the public through TV, newspaper, hoardings and other material, or in any language of similar nature.

To be sure, advertising industry regulator Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) allows comparative advertisements, including those where the product is named. However, comparative ads must ensure the comparisons are factual and capable of objective substantiation. Advertisements must refrain from denigrating, attacking or discrediting other brands or advertisers.

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