-Report by Yashica Dhawan
Case name: HINDUSTAN UNILEVER LIMITED versus RECKITT BENCKISER(INDIA) PRIVATE LIMITED
In this case, the appellant (hereafter ‘HUL’) has filed the present appeal impugning a judgement dated 09.11.2021 passed by the learned Single Judge of this Court whereby the appellant abstained from publishing a print advertisement and airing three YouTube videos. These advertisements for the toilet cleaner sold under the tradename ‘Domex’ were found tobe, prima facie, disparaging the toilet cleaner sold by the respondent (hereafter ‘Reckitt’) under its trademark ‘Harpic’. HUL claims that the impugned advertisement and videos truthfully depict that the effect of its product lasts longer than Reckitt’s product. Reckitt disputes the claims made by HUL and complains that the impugned advertisements andvideos are misleading and disparaging.
HUL is a company established in India and is engaged in manufacturing, marketing andselling various consumer products, including toiletries, floor cleaners, toilet cleaners, toilet soaps, washing, and detergents. Reckitt has been manufacturing a well-known toilet cleaner under India’s trademark ‘Harpic’. According to Reckitt, Harpic is India’s most widely used toilet cleaner brand. In 1979, Reckitt became the registered proprietor of the word ‘HARPIC’. The aforementioned trademark registration is valid and subsisting as of date. Reckitt has alsoobtained a registration for the shape of the bottle used for packaging ‘Harpic’ brandedproducts in India. Reckitt claims that since the launch of Harpic, the shape of the bottle has become a source identifier for its product.
HUL also manufactures and markets a toilet cleaner under the trademark ‘Domex’. It claimsthat Domex is superior to Reckitt’s Harpic in fighting bad odour. HUL has been granted apatent for using a technology that involves the use of a chemical compound called ‘Saline’,which enhances the malodour fighting capabilities by extending the period of itseffectiveness.
HUL also ran an advertisement campaign with the message that its product fights malodourfor an extended time. The advertisement campaign included the impugned advertisement,videos and a TV Commercial. On 26.07.2021, Reckitt instituted the aforementioned suitclaiming that the TV Commercial, impugned advertisement and the impugned videos weredisparaging its product (toilet cleaner) sold under the brand name ‘Harpic’. An applicationseeking interim relief was also filed by Reckitt restraining HUL from publishing ortelecasting the impugned advertisement and the impugned videos. The said application was disposed of by the impugned judgment dated 09.11.2021. The learned Single Judge held that prima facie, the impugned videos seek to denigrate and malign HUL’s product by depictingReckitt’s Harpic bottle as an ordinary toilet cleaner. However, both parties assailed the impugned judgment. This Court found that the learned Single Judge was wrong in drawing aprima facie conclusion that the TV Commercial did not belittle Reckitt’s product.Accordingly, this Court restrained
HUL from airing the TV Commercial. The present appeal is confined to the impugnedadvertisement (published in a newspaper) and the impugned videos (three videos broadcastedon YouTube).
In this case (HUL), the appellant contended that the learned Single Judge had misjudged inassuming that the impugned videos denigrated any product. The plot of the impugned videosmerely promoted HUL’s product sold under the brand name ‘Domex’ and did not disparageany other product. It was wrongly stated that the generic shape of the toilet cleaner bottle, asshown in the impugned videos, depicted Reckitt’s product. Furthermore, the impugned videoscontained a disclaimer stating that the ordinary toilet cleaner did not use water-repellenttechnology. Reckitt’s claim that it had a registration regarding the shape of the bottle was alsocontested. He referred to the documents, which reflected the trademark status as filed byReckitt and submitted that the registration to obtain a trademark was regarding the devicemarks as depicted on the bottle and not the shape. There were various similar products sold inbottles that were broadly similar to the shape of the toilet cleaner bottle shown in theimpugned videos as a representation of an ordinary toilet cleaner.
In the present case, HUL had produced test reports, which established that HUL’s product hada better odour-fighting ability. The learned Single Judge had erred in disregarding the said testreport. Insofar as the impugned advertisement is concerned, the impugned advertisementexplains that the Fresh-Guard technology used in Domex works to fight off bad smells for alonger period of time. The impugned advertisement intended to put forth the claim, whichwas neither untrue nor disparaging.
From the respondent’s side (Reckitt), the impugned advertisement depicted that the side ofthe toilet bowl, which Harpic cleaned, was smelly and emanated a foul odour. Thus, this is aclear case of disparagement. HUL’s claim that its product is superior is untrue. HUL’s claim isbased entirely on using a chemical compound called ‘Saline’, which makes the hard surface of the toilet bowl hydrophobic. It overlooks the effect that the toilet bowls are made of ceramic and has a smooth surface, making them hydrophobic. Even if the odour-causing liquid does not stick to the side of the toilet bowl, it would collect in the water body below and would not reduce the smell. Thus HUL’s product does not have any additional advantage in that regard. HUL’s claim that it uses a patented technology was also misleading, as the Patent Office rejected several of the claims regarding the anti-microbial effect.
Further, the claim that HUL’s product is effective for longer was also rejected. It was alsocontended that Reckitt got third-party laboratories to conduct tests and the malodour intensityresults, which showed no difference between HUL’s product (Domex) and Reckitt’s product(Harpic). Both products were effective in cleaning germs at the time of usage but wereineffective after subsequent wash cycles.
The respondent argues that the impugned advertisement and videos must be viewed not in thecontext of literal truth but by the honesty of the message they convey. In the present case, themessage given by the impugned advertisement and videos is untruthful.
The application filed by Reckitt was disposed of by the impugned judgment dated 09.11.2021wherein it was held that prima facie, the impugned videos seek to denigrate and defameHUL’s product as they depict Reckitt’s Harpic bottle as an ordinary toilet cleaner. It was also noted that the shape of the bottle was a registered trademark of Reckitt and, accordingly, restrained HUL from broadcasting the impugned videos in any form till HUL removed all reference to Reckitt’s product ‘Harpic’ or the bottle in question. Insofar as the impugned advertisement is concerned, HUL was restrained from publishing the same.
It is not necessary that an advertisement must expressly mention the competitor’s product. Itwill be impermissible if the disparaged product is likely to be identified as that of a rival. InHindustan Lever Ltd. v. Colgate Palmolive (India) Ltd. & Anr., the appellant had telecastedan advertisement regarding toothpaste, claiming it would be more effective in combatting germs. The TV Commercial characters did not mention the respondent’s product (ColgateToothpaste). It merely showed a lip movement by a child in the TV Commercial, which could be identified as pronouncing ‘Colgate’.
Further, a jingle was played in the background, which could be identified as that from therespondent’s advertisement. This was sufficient to establish that the appellant indirectlyreferred to its rival’s product, ‘Colgate Toothpaste’. Similarly, in the case of M/s ColortekMeghalaya, a depiction of a red toothpowder was found to be referring to the appellant’stoothpowder.
Thus it has been agreed upon that the shape of the bottle, as depicted in the impugned videos,is deceptively similar to Reckitt’s trademark. Undisputedly, the case lies in favour of Reckitt.A false advertisement campaign would cause irreversible loss to Reckitt. In contrast, forHUL, postponing the broadcast of an advertisement referring to Reckitt’s product may not have any material effect on them, considering that it is free to advertise its product without reference to Reckitt’s products.
Given the nature of the controversy and the facts, the learned Single Judge has merelydirected HUL to remove all references to Reckitt’s product, and the bottle representing ordinary toilet cleaners as the same is identifiable with Reckitt’s product – Harpic. For the above reasons, no infirmity is present with the impugned judgment.
READ FULL JUDGEMENT: https://bit.ly/3KZxP21