Soap brands battle in the midst of Coronavirus: Dettol agrees to take down ad after HUL approaches Bombay HC

Soap brands battle in the midst of Coronavirus: Dettol agrees to take down ad after HUL approaches Bombay HC

Bar & Bench

Even as health advisories issued across the world call for the use of any soap to fight the war against the novel Coronavirus, the makers of Lifebuoy and Dettol went to battle with each other before the Bombay High Court.

After Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) approached the High Court against Reckitt Benckiser for an advertisement allegedly disparaging the former’s brand of soap, the latter company has agreed to suspend the ad from March 22 to April 21.

HUL, the makers of Lifebuoy had filed a plea before the High Court contending that the makers of Dettol were maliciously publishing advertisements against its product, as also infringing its trademark rights.

HUL states that in public interest, it had published ads across various media trying to promote the washing of hands to fight the spread of COVID-19.

“With the outbreak of the Corona Virus, the Plaintiff has therefore stepped up its advertisements with a view to once again create an awareness and to promote the washing of hands. The Plaintiff is therefore also advertising its product Lifebuoy soap whereby it is conveying the message to consumers at large that it is the effective germ removal product…

…The Plaintiff has also, since about January 2020, for public awareness, published a notice in several newspapers that “coronavirus can be fought by frequent washing of hand with soap or by use of instant germ-kill with alcohol based sanitizer when someone is out of home. The notice further instructs that a doctor should be visited in case of cold or cough and sufficient rest should be taken. The Plaintiff has in the interest of the public also indicated that any soap can be used not just “Lifebuoy” but also Lux, Dettol, Santoor or Godrej No. 1.”

In one such advertisement, HUL had depicted an ill child being examined by a doctor at the, and the doctor advising the child’s mother on the benefits of washing hands with Lifebuoy.

The plaint states that Dettol then came out with a similar ad that casts Lifebuoy soap in bad light.

“…TV commercial of the Defendant for promotion of its “Dettol Liquid Hand Wash” by which the Defendant purported to disparage, denigrate the “Lifebuoy Soap” and/or Plaintiff’s red “Lifebuoy” soap in its distinctive shape and/or the plaintiff’s said product and/or infringe the registered trade mark of the Plaintiff’s Lifebuoy soap which is primarily red in colour and having a distinct shape, figure and configuration…

….The displayed soap is identical and / or deceptively similar to the registered trademark and design of the Plaintiff’s soap “Lifebuoy”, and the same is unambiguously understood and registered in the minds of a viewer by a simple glance at the advertisement. The malice of the Defendant becomes evident and obvious by the fact the Defendant in its advertisement purports to show a soap (having shape, configuration and colour as that of the plaintiff’s read soap bearing the registered mark “Lifebuoy") which does not remove any germs and is an ineffective, useless and unreliable product.”

It is also claimed that the Dettol ad in question is a blatant copy of the advertisement earlier published by Lifebuoy.

As per the plaint, the issue assumes greater significance at a time when preventive measures are being taken to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“In fact, when the world is struggling to control Corona Virus outbreak, the guidelines prescribed by WHO clearly recommends that washing hands with soap and water is one of the essential and most effective way to protect yourself from such a virus. Other products such as alcohol based sanitisers etc. are recommended only when soap and water is not available. Moreover, nations across the world are communicating just the opposite and asking people to wash their hands with soaps and water whereas the Defendant is creating scare amongst the general public by falsely propagating that soaps are useless by maligning the market leader in the soaps category. When the need of the hour is for everyone to come together and work towards common good, the Defendant’s action is irresponsible and against public morality. Such advertisement is detrimental particularly in a country like India where larger population is traditionally not using multiple products for their hygiene needs but relying predominantly on soap alone.”

Plaint filed by HUL before Bombay HC

Thus, HUL prayed that Reckitt be restrained by a perpetual injunction from broadcasting the ad in question. An injunction against the disparagement or denigration of the Lifebuoy soap products was also sought.

When the matter came up before Justice KR Shriram on March 20, Reckitt had agreed to suspend the ad from 12 PM on March 22 to 5 PM on April 21. The matter was thus stood over to April 20.

HUL was represented by Senior Advocate Virag Tulzapurkar, who was briefed by Advocate Hiren Kamod and a team from Khaitan & Co.

Reckitt was represented by Senior Advocate Chander Lall, who was briefed by Argus Partners.

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