The recent decision in Stokely-Van Camp, Inc. v. Coca-Cola Co. (i.e., Gatorade vs. Powerade) illustrates the hurdles a company has to overcome to convince a court to stop a competitor from using arguably false advertising. Stokely-Van Camp, Inc. (“SVM”) was challenging advertising that compared Powerade ION4 to Gatorade Thirst Quencher.
Judge John G. Koeltl of the Southern District of New York characterized the case as “an advertising battle between two major consumer products companies over one company’s comparison of its beverage to human sweat.”
Following a two-day preliminary injunction hearing, the court denied a request to enjoin various advertising claims about Powerade ION4. Ultimately, to succeed, SVM, makers of Gatorade, had to show (1) likelihood of irreparable harm and (2) either a likelihood of success on the merits or serious questions going to the merits that were sufficient to make them fair grounds for litigation, with a balance of hardships tipping decidedly in its favor.
As with any request for a preliminary injunction, this is a difficult standard to meet. Personal experience is that no matter the legal standards, judges often revert to the “is a building going to collapse?” gut-check approach.
“Unclean hands” are also a big deal when it comes to injunctions. Courts are very reluctant to grant injunctive relief if they get a sense that the moving party is itself guilty of the acts it complains of.
In the SVM case, the court came down against SVM on the second prong concerning the merits of its Lanham Act false advertising and trademark dilution claims. The court ruled that the claims were moot (because Coca-Cola already dropped the aggrieved advertising campaign), nonactionable puffery or, for the implied falsity claims, not supported by extrinsic evidence.
The court went further in addressing irreparable harm. Even if SVM’s claims were merited, the court did not believe SVM was entitled to a presumption of irreparable harm, because Coca-Cola discontinued the comparison ads. The court also found SVM’s arguments of a public health risk unconvincing.
Perhaps the most interesting lesson is the court’s final conclusion of law that SVM had “unclean hands.” Even if SVM’s injunction motion had met the legal standard, fatal to its motion would have been that “SVC complains about Coca-Cola’s claims regarding the presence of calcium and magnesium in Powerade ION4, but it has made virtually identical claims about calcium and magnesium in its own Gatorade Endurance Formula.”
The court concluded by saying, “SVC cannot, having jumped on the bandwagon of calcium and magnesium first, now jump off and claim that Coca-Cola must get off too.”