The Kellogg Company has agreed to pay $4 million dollars to settle a class action lawsuit over a misleading advertising campaign for its popular Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal. In 2008 and 2009, Kellogg’s claimed that Mini-Wheats could improve kids’ attentiveness, memory, and other cognitive functions — even though the sugary cereal doesn’t actually have any of those positive effects.
In 2009, the food corporation claimed that Mini-Wheats were “clinically shown to improve kids’ attentiveness by 11 percent.” That caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which filed a suit against Kellogg’s to prevent it from continuing to advertise misleading claims. “We tell consumers that they should deal with trusted national brands,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said in a 2009 statement. “So it’s especially important that America’s leading companies are more ‘attentive’ to the truthfulness of their ads and don’t exaggerate the results of tests or research.”
The cereal maker stopped using those ads, but the legal process still took several years to resolve. Now, Kellogg’s will pay $4 million into a fund that will be used to compensate Americans who submit a claims form. The people who bought a box of Frosted Mini-Wheats between 2008 and 2009 may be eligible to receive $5 in compensation for up to three boxes, for a total of $15.
While $15 may not seem like much, the class action lawyer representing the parents who filed suit against Kellogg’s explained to NPR that it’s a small way of challenging corporate power. “The concept behind class actions is that you take a bunch of individual small claims and you aggregate them,” Tim Blood said in reference to the relatively small pay-outs. “ And that has the effect of leveling the playing field, so that collectively all of the consumers can band together against wealthy corporations who engage in wrongdoing.”
Of course, many parents may have never believed that the sugary cereal would actually help their kids focus better. But some may have: in order to successfully win this type of lawsuit, lawyers must prove that a “reasonable consumer” could be deceived by the false advertising. Some people may have assumed that the “clinical trials” that Kellogg’s referenced provided evidence that Frosted Mini-Wheats could be a helpful addition to their hyperactive children’s ADHD medication.
And the suit against Kellogg’s is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this type of misleading advertising. Big food corporations regularly make exaggerated claims about the health benefits of their products, and some have been criticized for inappropriately marketing to kids. Taking advantage of the fact that most people don’t read the fine print at the grocery store, cereal companies often use packaging suggesting their products contain real fruit — when in reality, that “fruit” is actually nothing more than soybean oil and dried fruit pieces. The FDA often doesn’t have the power to effectively crack down on these practices.
The food industry typically relies on the “personal responsibility” argument, making the case that additional regulation isn’t necessary because it’s up to each American to make their own decisions about what’s healthy. But public health advocates warn that, in many ways, Big Food is simply using the same marketing tactics as Big Tobacco once did. A federal court recently ruled that Big Tobacco “deliberately deceived the American public” about the health dangers of smoking.