Monday, December 20, 2021

MLM's essential oils claims were puffery

Macnaughten v. Young Living Essential Oils, LC, 2021 WL 5965195, No. 5:21-cv-00071 (BKS/ML) (N.D.N.Y. Dec. 16, 2021)

Some cases are a reminder that puffery is a doctrine that allows sellers to trick buyers, as long as the way they trick buyers is with statements that sound like they mean something, but aren’t really tangible if you stop and think about them. Some theorists think there should be no such doctrine, because sellers make it sound like the claims are meaningful and consumers respond to the claims as if they were meaningful. This case, where the legal holding is that the central advertising claims are just puffery, is a good illustration of the problem.

Young Living sells “essential oils and blends” through an MLM model. Challenged claims include:

Defendant’s frankincense oil “promotes feelings of relaxation & tranquility”;

Defendant’s lavender oil “promote[s] feeling of calm and fight[s] occasional nervous tension’ and has ‘balancing properties that calm the mind and body”;

Defendant’s peppermint oil “helps to maintain energy levels when applied topically.”


Young Living instructs its salespeople that when “describing therapeutic-grade oils,” they should relay that “every essential oil ... has the highest naturally-occurring blend of constituents to maximize the desired effect.” One now-partially-removed statement said that “you can share our products with confidence, knowing that Young Living truly has the experience to produce essential oils that work.” Its blog said: “Pure, therapeutic-grade essential oils can have therapeutic effects on their users. The purer the oils, the stronger the benefits ... Peppermint essential oil should contain between 38 and 47 percent menthol to be therapeutic ... Look for a guarantee of therapeutic grade, which Young Living provides…. [Young Living’s] guarantee of therapeutic-grade oils is superior to all other ‘therapeutic-grade’ promises because Mr. Young ‘developed Young Living’s very high standards for therapeutic-grade essential oils,’ … that separate its products from its competitors.’”

Customers allegedly pay premium prices for these essential oils.

In 2014, FDA issued a warning letter to Young Living as a result of promoting its essential oils for the treatment of “viral infections (including Ebola), Parkinson’s disease, autism, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, insomnia, heart disease, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dementia, and multiple sclerosis,” conditions that are not “amenable to self-diagnosis and treatment by individuals who are not medical practitioners.” The NAD also directed Young Living to permanently discontinue its claim that the oils are “therapeutic.” Specifically, the NAD found:

in the absence of specific product testing (or evidence that Young Living’s essential oils have not only the same ingredient, but that such ingredients appear in the products in the same dosage and formulation and that the route of administration is the same as the underlying tests reasonably permitting extrapolation of results from the studies to the claims made) ... claims its essential oils are “therapeutic grade” and confer promised physical and mental benefits are unsubstantiated.

NARB affirmed the ruling in 2020. Young Living agreed to discontinue use of its “therapeutic-grade” claim and several other health-related claims, including that its oils “promote feelings of calm,” “help consumers sleep,” “reduce your anxiety,” and “provide clarity, focus and/or alertness.” Nevertheless, promotion of “therapeutic-grade” continues.

The court held that the challenged claims were puffery: vague and subjective claims on which no consumer was entitled to rely, and if they did so, too bad for them.

The term “100% Pure, Therapeutic-Grade” was puffery because it was on all of Young Living’s product labels, ranging from peppermint and eucalyptus to orange and frankincense, “all of which have different purported health benefits according to claims on Defendant’s website.” The term lacked “concrete discernable meaning,” didn’t communicate “any specific details about the product,” nor was it accompanied by any specific details on the label—other than the type of oil—that would, when viewed together, signal to a consumer that “the product would operate in an objective measurable way.” Considering the overall advertising, the claims were too vague, nonspecific, and aspirational: “promote[ ] feelings of relaxation,” “help[ ] to maintain energy levels,” “can ease ... tension,” or “may help relieve tension.” The advertising describes “intangible, non-measurable benefit[s] akin to puffery.” A reasonable consumer could not rely on the “vague advertising language” that the oils “can help promote feelings,” “may help relieve tension,” or “promote” assorted feelings. “In fact, from the cited language a reasonable consumer could expect that the oils may not help promote feelings or may not relieve tension.”

What about all those statements of superiority to other oils? When defendants’ blog answered the question “If an oil is labeled ‘pure, therapeutic-grade,’ can I be sure that it is?” with “NO! Look for a guarantee of therapeutic-grade which Young Living provides,” that merely reflected an intent to communicate that the products “ ‘work’ and are pure, natural, and of the highest quality, but these representations are couched in boastful, non-specific language … that ultimately neither promises nor even identifies any specific ‘therapeutic effects,’ ‘benefits’ or characteristics.” The claimed health benefits were “vague” and “non-committal,” like “[m]ay help relieve tension,” “create[ ] the feeling of normal clear breathing,” “promote a sense of clarity and focus,” or “help[ ] to maintain energy levels.”

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