THE BLOG
11/21/2014 01:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mayogate: Unilever Doctoring Customer Reviews

Big Mayo scrubbing Hellmann's website to cover up deception after filing lawsuit against Hampton Creek

Screen shots of Hellmann's promotion showing altered customer reviews. (Click for larger resolution.)

Last week I wrote about the negative PR backlash against global giant Unilever for its desperate lawsuit against Hampton Creek over Just Mayo, a new product made without eggs that is quickly stealing market share from twin brands Hellmann's and Best Foods, the market leaders. Most corporations shy away from filing these sorts of competitor lawsuits and Unilever is about to find out why.

Unilever claims that the San Francisco startup's Just Mayo product violates the federal definition of "mayonnaise," which requires eggs. The case hinges on the accusation that Hampton Creek is deceiving consumers by marketing their product as mayonnaise when the law says it's not.

It turns out that Unilever has been doing the exact same thing. But now that they've filed a lawsuit, the corporate giant is reportedly trying to cover its tracks. Hampton Creek has identified numerous instances of recent changes to the Hellmann's website, including altering customer reviews, in an effort to rewrite history.

Is "mayonnaise dressing" really mayonnaise?

The Hellmann's brand consists of at least six varieties of some form of "mayonnaise." But only half of them meet the Food and Drug Administration's "standard of identity" (definition) for mayonnaise. You can tell just by looking at the labels. For example, the Hellmann's variety made with olive oil is called "mayonnaise dressing" because it does not contain the minimum amount of oil (65 percent by weight) legally required by FDA to be called mayonnaise.

And yet, the Hellmann's website shows the three "mayonnaise dressing" products under the tab called "mayonnaise" and these brand extensions are obviously intended for consumers to think they are mayonnaise. Only the company's flagship product is called "Real Mayonnaise." For each of the three products that cannot be called mayonnaise, the first ingredient is water, so essentially these products are watered-down versions.

Realizing they have a huge problem on their hands given the enormous media attention the lawsuit has already received, Unilever is now, in the midst of litigation they started, trying to destroy any evidence of the mayonnaise deception. Here are a few examples of this 21st century document shredding, according to Hampton Creek:

1) Deleting at least 10 customers reviews that used the word "mayo" or "mayonnaise" for products that do not meet the FDA's definition of mayonnaise, including for the balsamic, olive oil, and cholesterol-free varieties;

2) Adding the word "dressing" to customer testimonials for non-mayonnaise products; the above image shows two such examples; you can also see the original page here and as of 10:00 am Pacific Time on Sunday, the doctored one here; however, this page was further altered to remove both doctored comments after the New York Times story hit today.

3) Adding the word "dressing" after Canola Cholesterol Free Mayonnaise, see below.

Pot, meet kettle

Unilever's lawsuit against Hampton Creek for fooling consumers into thinking egg-free Just Mayo is mayonnaise now looks both frivolous and absurdly hypocritical.

For starters, the phrase "mayonnaise dressing" seems more likely to trick consumers into buying "mayonnaise" than Hampton Creek's "Just Mayo" name. But branding is more about images than words. The Hellmann's brand is 101 years old and its iconic blue ribbon logo is instantly recognizable; by contrast Just Mayo has only been on the market for less than a year.

In addition, the FDA does not consider having eggs in mayonnaise more important than oil. In fact, it appears that containing oil is of higher importance than eggs, as the required oil amount is at least 65 percent.

With its "mayonnaise dressing" brand extensions, Hellmann's is making its customers think the products are mayonnaise, which is what Unilever is accusing Hampton Creek of doing. That's why Unilever decided to scrub its website of the damning evidence that could be used against them -- ironically in the very lawsuit the company filed.

Possible legal violations

The Federal Trade Commission, the federal agency that regulates all forms of advertising, has been cracking down on deceptive uses of third-party endorsements and testimonials. The FTC would probably frown on altering customer reviews. For example, the agency's guide to endorsements and testimonials says that such statements:

"must reflect the honest opinions, findings, beliefs, or experience of the endorser" and "may not be presented out of context or reworded so as to distort in any way the endorser's opinion or experience with the product."

Rewording a customer comment from describing a product as "mayonnaise" to "mayonnaise dressing" could be interpreted as distorting that customer's "experience with the product."

Also, endorsements, just like advertising, must be "truthful and not misleading." The FTC guide notes:

"Furthermore, an endorsement may not convey any express or implied representation that would be deceptive if made directly by the advertiser."

In other words, a company can't adopt third-party statements that they couldn't make directly, such as referring to a non-mayonnaise product as mayonnaise. That explains why Unilever is so busy changing customer reviews.

But they've so far neglected their social media. Unilever's social media team has been "liking" the comments that call certain products mayonnaise but are not; for example, see their Facebook page for "Creamy Balsamic Mayonnaise Dressing," where Unilever refers to the product as "mayonnaise." (For some unknown reason, the balsamic variety has been removed from the Hellmann's site altogether.)

The FDA considers "liking" a deceptive comment on Facebook a form of illegal endorsement and has sent companies warning letters for such activity.

Glass houses

How the second largest consumer goods corporation in the world could be engaging in such amateur hour tactics is baffling. If you're going to sue a competitor over deceptive marketing, you should probably clean up your own act first. It's likely that some heads will roll over this. Whoever gave the order to alter customer comments should be fired first. The cover up is usually worse then the underlying offense.

The reason most corporations don't like to file competitor lawsuits is that they fear they will be next. Those living in glass houses shouldn't throw eggs.

You can watch a video from Hampton Creek explaining the manipulation here.

Postscript: The New York Times also just covered this story here. Mike Faherty, vice president for foods of Unilever North America told reporter Stephanie Strom that the company "inadvertently edited" comments "when they should have just been removed." Inadvertently edited, what does that mean? That some dumb intern did it? What he really means is they got caught. As in the military, mistakes were made.

Faherty also flat out lied to the New York Times when he told Strom, "the minute we found out there was something misleading on our pages, we took action." Actually as the Times notes earlier in the article, Hampton Creek sent Unilever a letter on November 4, outlining the misleading labels and marketing copy, and yet the company took no action until they began doctoring and removing comments on Friday, November 14, ten days after they were notified.

The mayo wars are about to get even uglier.