A fermenting battle between yogurt makers has landed in court, with Chobani and rivals Dannon and Yoplait trading accusations over the former's ads that criticized its rivals’ product for the use of FDA-approved sweeteners.
The dairy donnybrook, which also involves Yoplait, began when Chobani aired two new TV commercials for its Simply 100 Greek Yogurt products on Jan. 6 that highlight its commitment to natural sweeteners and mock the competition.
One features a woman at a pool hastily tossing a Dannon Light & Fit Greek yogurt into a used towel bin after an announcer asks, “Sucralose? Why? That stuff has chlorine added to it.”
The second ad features the same woman, this time contemplating a Yoplait Greek 100 yogurt -- until the voiceover says, “Potassium sorbate? Really? That stuff is used to kill bugs.” She deftly hurls the yogurt pot out of her car and into a nearby container.
Michael J. Neuwirth, a spokesman for Dannon, told NBC that the Chobani ad targeting its product is “misleading and deceptive.” He said the company, a subsidiary of French multinational Danone, had sent Chobani a cease-and-desist letter and intended to “pursue all available avenues” to force Chobani to pull it.
“Chlorine in the form suggested by the Chobani commercial -- like what might be used in swimming pools as a disinfectant -- is not found in sucralose or any Dannon product,” he said. “… It is in fact safe and FDA-approved as a sweetener in foods.”
Yoplait spokesman Mike Siemienas mounted a similar defense, noting that potassium sorbate also is an FDA-approved ingredient.
“The statements made by Chobani in their latest attempt to sell more yogurt are inaccurate and misleading, and we don’t think consumers appreciate that kind of approach,” he said.
Chobani responded to Dannon’s letter by filing a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York on Friday. It followed up by taking out full-page ads in numerous U.S. newspapers over the weekend and issuing a statement Sunday that said it is asking the court to declare “that Chobani's advertising … is not false, misleading, disparaging or deceptive and that … its claims that its Greek Yogurt contains substantially less sugar than regular yogurt are not false or misleading."
Yoplait’s parent company, Minnesota-based General Mills, got involved in the court battle on Sunday, filing a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Minnesota against Chobani. The suit says that even though U.S. regulators consider potassium sorbate to be a safe food ingredient, Chobani ads "convey that, because Yoplait Greek 100 is laced with a pesticide, it is so dangerous and unfit to eat that consumers should discard it as garbage."
Peter McGuinness, chief marketing and brand officer at Chobani, told NBC News via email that the company felt it had to go to court.
"While I'm not surprised, I'm disappointed that Dannon and General Mills (the parent company of Yoplait) are focused on stopping people from having the facts about artificial sweeteners and artificial preservatives,” he said. “This campaign is about giving people truthful and accurate information so they can make more informed decisions about the food they buy."
Chobani has long aggressively touted its commitment to natural ingredients, but some advertising experts said the new campaign could backfire in light of Chobani’s previous “feel-good,” Team USA image.
“Going negative does feel out of character for the Chobani brand, which has largely been built on positivity and the idea of embracing life, and love,” said Adweek reporter Tim Nudd.
But while any implication that additives in Dannon and Yoplait are unsafe or unhealthful would be wrong, nutritionist and author Brooke Alpert told NBC News that Chobani is making a valid point in the ads.
“For the most part, when in doubt choose the product with the fewest ingredients and the ones that are closest to their most natural form,” she said. “There are plenty of "acceptable" ingredients, but that doesn't mean you should be eating them.”