Hot dog lawsuits: Will real wiener emerge?
Kraft Foods, the maker of Oscar Mayer hot dogs, and Sara Lee, manufacturer of Ball Park franks, begin court proceedings this week in hopes of ending a three-year legal dispute
Diane Bondareff / AP Images for Oscar Mayer / File
Every lawsuit has its losers. But rare is the case with wieners on both sides.
Americaâs two biggest hot dog brands, Oscar Mayer and Ball Park, began to duke it out in a Chicago federal court on Monday, in a bid to end three years of legal wrangling over advertising allegations.
The dispute began in 2009 with a national hot dog taste test by Kraft Foods, maker of Oscar Mayer hot dogs. It advertised that Americans prefer their dogs over Ball Park franks. Sara Lee, which owns Ball Park franks, sued, saying that its hot dogs werenât prepared and served properly in the test.
But that's just the start of it.
Each company is also contesting claims that the other has made about its own frankfurters. Kraft says itâs Jumbo Beef Franks are made with â100 percent pure beef,â which Sara Lee says is misleading. And Sara Lee claimed in a 2009 ad that its hot dogs are âAmericaâs Best Franks,â and that other hot dogs âarenât even in the same league.â Here, Kraft would beg to differ.
"Not in the entire history of American hot dogs ... was a campaign of this scope launched," Sara Lee attorney Richard Leighton said of Kraft's allegedly misleading advertising on Monday, the Associated Press reports. Kraft attorney Stephen O'Neil responded by calling the filing of the lawsuit "an act of utter hypocrisy" on Sara Lee's part, because Ball Park franks have also been labeled as "all beef" when they, too, contained other ingredients.
This kind of lawsuit, when a company questions the fairness of its competitorâs comparison tests or claims, is quite common, says Harold Weinberger, a partner at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP in New York, who teaches a course in false advertising law at Columbia University in New York.
A company can be sued if it makes a claim that is literally false or implicitly false, says Mr. Weinberger. For instance, Kraft says it advertised â100 percent pure beefâ to let customers know that beef is the only meat in the hot dog, but not that it is the only ingredient. If it can be proven that customers are misled by the statement, then Kraft could be at fault, says Weinberger.
As for Sara Leeâs claim that it makes âAmericaâs Best Frank,â Weinberger says, âthatâs historically viewed as a form of âpuffing.ââ The word âbest,â is nonspecific, and could refer to the hot dogâs appearance, taste, price, or any other number of non-objective qualities. âItâs generally not actionable [in court],â Weinberger says.
Brand advertisements first started attacking competition in the mid-80s, Weinberger says.
âKraft and Sara Lee arenât the only ones going at it with disputes over marketing,â right now, says Erin Lash, an analyst at the Chicago-based investment research firm Morningstar. âChurch & Dwight and Clorox have been battling about cat litter.â
Earlier this year, Church & Dwight, the maker of Arm & Hammer Super Scoop kitty litter, complained that Clorox, the maker of Fresh Step litter, aired a misleading ad. The ad showed cats turning their noses at litter boxes with Super Scoop and opting for the Fresh Step instead.
Cats and dogs aside, maintaining a solid reputation is crucial for any company nowadays.
âFrom the perspective of the consumer, spending still remains tight,â says Ms. Lash. âBrand perception and getting out in front of these consumers is crucial.â
âThey wouldnât be going to court if they didnât think it mattered,â she adds.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.