How labels can mislead you


Johannesburg - Most of us have bought a product by mistake at some point, having mis-read the label: the wrong variant of a pack of biscuits, for example, or conditioner instead of shampoo. I certainly have – more than once.

What we’ve done is make an assumption, based on our previous exposure to the labelling of the product, or category of product we intended to buy.

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The bottle of sunflower oil was packed on a shelf alongside other olive oil brands and had the words 100% pure virgin and cold pressed on the label.The words 'sunflower oil' were in tiny, faint print, much smaller than the words above it: '100% pure virgin'.

We tend to assume things based on visual cues on packaging.

Remember the Frankie’s Olde Soft Drinks versus Woolworths’s Good Old Fashioned battle of two years ago?

Woolworths was widely accused on social media of “ripping off” the small Midlands company’s nostalgic soft drinks range of ginger beer, lemonade and the like. And while the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that Woolworths remove only the “good old-fashioned” line from its packaging, the retailer chose to discontinue the entire range, given public sentiment.

I put it to then-chief executive Ian Moir that I and many others had taken a look at the Good Old Fashioned range on the shelf and assumed that Frankie’s was bottling it for Woolworths.

“That’s because Frankie’s was firmly established in your mind as a vintage soda range,” Moir told me. “Retro is an international trend, and those flavours and heritage/vintage design cues – such as candy stripes – are being used by other brands in other markets.”

Fast-forward to a couple of weeks ago, and Val Marsh of Great Brak River bought a bottle of what she thought was olive oil from a supermarket in George.

The product was packed on a shelf alongside several olive oil brands; it was in a glass bottle, and had the words “100% pure virgin” and “cold pressed” on the label.

Only when she got home did she realise that she’d actually bought a posh sunflower oil: Vergezocht high oleic sunflower oil, which retails for about R50 for 500ml.

And the key words, describing the nature of the product – “sunflower oil” – were in tiny, faint print, much smaller than the words above it: “100% pure virgin”, creating the impression that they were intended to be missed.

“I will in future keep my reading glasses on hand when I do my weekly shopping!” she said.

I had a look for the product in several supermarkets and found it nestled among local and imported olive oil brands, and in such lighting, the words “sunflower oil” on the label all but disappeared.

Approached for comment, Vergezocht’s Dr Andries Jordaan said the sunflower oil product was a speciality oil high in monounsaturates with a fatty acid composition similar to olive oil.

“It is cold pressed and absolutely no additives or chemicals are used in the oil. It is 100 percent pure and therefore the use of the word ‘virgin’, which we understood to mean ‘pure’ and ‘untreated’.

“The bright yellow colour of the oil is typically sunflower and we decided to package the oil in transparent glass bottles in order for the consumer to identify and clearly see the colour of the oil.

“It was never our intention to mislead consumers and we have not received any complaints since the product became available in 2008.”

In reality, though, as it stood on the shelf in my local Woolworths, nestled between two local brands of olive oil, neither the bright yellow colour, nor the words sunflower oil, were particularly apparent.

Interestingly, at a branch of Checkers, two versions of the same Vergezocht label stood side by side, one with the letters of the words describing the oil outlined in white, which made them far more visible.

It’s definitely an improvement, but as I suggested to Jordaan, making the words “sunflower oil” larger and bolder would put paid to suggestions that the product could be mistaken for olive oil.

Vergezocht’s Steven Dienar later told me that the “white-outline” label is the product’s new label.

“And we have made the decision to further highlight the word sunflower in the next run of labels.”

Good to know.

The Star

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