business news in context, analysis with attitude

Now available on iTunes...

To hear Kevin Coupe’s weekly radio commentary, click on the “MNB Radio” icon on the left hand side of the home page, or just go to:

Hi, I’m Kevin Coupe, and this is MorningNewsBeat Radio, brought to you by Webstop, experts in the art of retail website design.

We talk a lot about transparency here on MorningNewsBeat, so I wasn’t hugely surprised the other day when one of our readers sent me some information about a recently decided court case that, I think, flies in the face of what should be a core industry value.

The case concerned a lawsuit brought against PepsiCo, charging that the company had engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices in violation of New York State’s consumer protection laws when it marketed its Aquafina product. Essentially, the lawsuit said that the company was deceiving consumers when it put Aquafina in a bottle designed to suggest that it was from a mountain spring, when it in fact is just purified tap water. To be sure, the label says “purified drinking water,” but the plaintiffs argued that a false impression clearly was the motivation behind the packaging design.

Now, I’m not a lawyer, but I do get that the judge in the case ruled in favor of Pepsi, saying that the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act says that the company can't be sued because it would preempt its federal exemption, which I believe says that states cannot establish standards different from those held by the federal government. (I say “I believe” because all the legalese is sort of difficult to read and even harder to understand.)

I’m certainly in no position to debate the merits of the law – there probably are good arguments on both sides. I’m not even going to argue Pepsi’s motivation.

I just want to suggest that everybody’s time would be better spent if we could all just be a little more transparent and accurate in how we talk about our products. Because regardless of the law, when it came out that bottled water that a lot of people believed was spring water was actually purified tap water, the industry took a hit. Maybe not a big hit. Maybe just a little one. But a hit just the same. And all those hits eventually take a toll on an industry’s reputation.

It was interesting that in a separate case, on the opposite coast, it was ruled by the California Supreme Court that consumers can sue grocery stores for being deceptive when they did not disclose that farm-raised salmon had been given a dye to make them look more like wild salmon.

Now, I’m not in favor of litigation. Far from it. But I understand the consumer impulse to fight back when he or she thinks deception has taken place.

Manufacturers and retailers sell a lot of things. Included on the shopping list, I think, is an item called trust. We all have to take the extra step to make sure that we’re ahead of the consumer on this issue, taking no chances, because as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “distrust is very expensive.”

For MorningNewsBeat Radio, I’m Kevin Coupe.

KC's View: