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As an old motor oil marketer, I just cant seem to help myself. I usually manage to wander through the automotive area of any big box store where I happen to be shopping. My routine is pretty simple and virtually the same each time: I look at pricing to see whos charging what and whos on special. After that, I pick up a container or three and read the copy on the label. Given all of the requirements and specs that are usually listed, there isnt a lot of room on a quart for anything else. However, the one-gallon containers are another story. There are claims of performance on some of them that are truly remarkable.
I say all of this to preface a recent note I got from an old friend and colleague in the business. His note was short and to the point: If you are looking for topics, may I suggest suitable for use. This phrase appears on many lubricant sheets and has varying meanings.
The note immediately raised some hackles on the back of my neck. In my roles at various companies, I have written more than a few pieces of advertising, product sheets and label copy. In all of those efforts, I tried to find words and phrases to differentiate my products from those of the competition.
Finding words was easy; it was getting them past our corporate lawyers that proved to be difficult. Heres one example:
I want to say our product is Number 1.
Cant say that.
Well, what can I say?
Ill get back to you.
A few minutes later: You can say our product is unsurpassed.
I know it seems like a subtle difference, but its an important one. To be Number 1, you must clearly establish that no other product meets the claims you are describing. That means lots of testing (read: dollars) and time. In this business you usually have no more than six months to claim anything before the competition either matches you or leap-frogs over you.
Unsurpassed, on the other hand, says that you have a product as good as anyone else. Saying youre as good as anyone else isnt very splashy, but unsurpassed? What a great word!
I recently tracked down one of those lawyers, who was formerly with a national oil brand youd recognize, and he gave me a good rundown on how ad copy is reviewed. The first thing he referred me to is the U.S. Federal Trade Commissions advertising guidelines – the holy grail of advertising law – which are the starting point and can answer most questions.
He went on to say that when he reviewed advertising, he followed a few simple rules.
First and foremost, the claims made in the ad must be absolutely true and provable.
Next, there has to be reasonable and documentable substantiation for all claims. The ad has to be fair and cannot be deceptive, tricky or intended to make someone believe something that is not true.
Finally, he noted, the ad has to be clear and understandable to the lowest level of the target audience. (When I was first in the oil business, my supervisor, Frank Chamberlain, gave me a similarly sound piece of advice: No executive has time to read anything at greater than a sixth-grade level because he or she has no time to wade through complex sentences. If you dont write simply, many good ideas can get lost in the linguistics. If executives who understand the business prefer to read at a sixth-grade level, what does that say about average readers?)
Another point that my lawyer friend emphasized is that the ad has to be grammatically correct and contain proper spelling and punctuation. Errors like that can make the advertiser look bad, he said, adding that Id be shocked at the mistakes hed seen over the years.
Lest you think this is only an oil industry issue, pick up a magazine of any type and read the ads, or browse the labels in your supermarket. Look for the words that indicate superiority or lack of issues. (An aside: Reading food labels often requires a degree in chemistry and good eyesight.)
Heres an example from a magazine devoted to food, homes and decorating: The photo caption in one ad reads, Its missing ingredients youre not going to miss. Want to guess what it is? Its Mac & Cheese! What is missing is the usual food bad guys including artificial flavors, preservatives and dyes. The claim is that removing these additives had no effect on how the product tastes. Since Im not a huge Mac & Cheese eater, I cant confirm the validity of the claim.
OK, you know that Im not just writing about the joys of advertising. There are some real issues regarding petroleum product advertising. One of the biggest is the phrase suitable for use. What does it mean, and what sorts of problems does it bring to the table? Ill focus here on suitable for use, but keep in mind that there are other words we see all the time that have some perilous connotations. Approved, back serviceable, meets requirements, designed for application and will not void new car warranties are among the twisters that are lurking in the tall grass, ready to bite.
Most of you are well aware of the API system for engine oil performance categories. For light-duty vehicles, the most up-to-date oils meet ILSAC GF-5, API SN or API SN Resource Conserving, which together dominate the U.S. market. These categories are pretty straightforward and certainly are designed to be suitable for use in older vehicles as well as the latest model-year types. Thats the charm of backwards compatibility: You can use the latest engine oil with no worries (leaving aside those few drivers with a classic muscle car or custom racer that they believe need higher zinc levels).
Suitable for use seems a pretty harmless phrase, but it has hidden meanings that can cause lots of trouble. It raised a red flag for my old colleague, especially when he spotted it on a container of automatic transmission fluid. While there are essentially three key passenger car engine oil categories we have to worry about, there are massive numbers of ATF specifications to track, most of which are OEM-issued. In total, there are probably over 200 ATF specs, of which 30 or 40 are current. Plenty of opportunity for misapplication there.
I moved on to have a conversation with an expert from the OEM world, Roy Fewkes. Now a consultant, Roy formulated several generations of Dexron ATF during his career at General Motors. When confronted with words like suitable for use or recommended by, he immediately asks a great question: Says who?
In a 2007 paper published by SAE International, SAE 2007-01-3987, Roy and his GM co-authors didnt tackle the claims of suitability front-on, but they showed that having a truly universal ATF was technically impossible. Performance requirements, friction materials and physical properties vary so widely among OEMs that one transmission fluid couldnt be made suitable for use in all the different designs then out there. And if a universal ATF cant be made, how can one provably claim that it suits any application?
Going back even further, Roy and his colleagues presented a paper in Germany, Diversification of Automatic Transmission Fluid Technology, pointing out that ATF performance was going to be an issue for the worlds increasingly disparate transmission designs. The date of that paper: 1996.
What happens if the suitable for use ATF is used in an application where it isnt? I can think of two or three things, none of them good. The transmission can fail due to seal problems, clutch wear or myriad other issues. Drivers using suitable for use rather than the specified product may find themselves needing to buy a new transmission or at least a rebuild. I dont know if youve checked out prices on transmissions, but heres an eye-opener for you. The cost of a rebuild averages about $2,750 and can go as high as $6,000, depending on the type of vehicle and its age. Suitable for use versus manufacturer approved seems like a no-brainer from my viewpoint.
The same logic and skepticism can also be applied to aftermarket additives. There are a bunch of them out there. Many are fuel additives that stay in the engine for the lifespan of one tank of gas; cleaners for carburetors, fuel injectors and combustion chambers, for example. There are also a large number of oil additives such as friction modifiers, antiwear agents, antioxidants, etc. Many purport to improve performance but are suspiciously thin on details of what they actually do or how its measured.
Claims about these materials run afoul of my lawyer friends advice to make sure the product is fully approved, has been tested to validate performance, and is capable of being substantiated. Start with the doctors oath: First, do no harm. You can then add, meets specification XXXX. Im always more comfortable with a known, current specification than some vague word or catch phrase.
The bottom line is to watch those words. Always ask, Says who? And look with caution on suitable for use and its fellow travelers.
Industry consultant Steve Swedberg has over 40 years experience in lubricants, most notably with Pennzoil and Chevron Oronite. He is a longtime member of the American Chemical Society and SAE International, where he was chairman of Technical Committee 1 on automotive engine oils. He can be reached at steveswedberg@cox.net.