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“Slack fill laws” and their effect on packaging

“Slack fill laws” and their effect on packaging

One of the most recent – and high profile – cases involving a product that “misinforms” consumers by using oversized packaging that makes the product appear larger, ended with Proctor and Gamble (P&G) settling for $850,000, and committing to change the packaging for many of its Olay skin care products.

It was interesting to read the comments and opinions online in response to this case. Some readers were outraged at many companies who seem to employ such tactics, while many others (correctly) pointed out that the packaging in question clearly stated the number of ounces of product, and that the size of the packaging is only a part of the overall picture.

Packaging serves many purposes

At Nuvonium, we’ve designed and produced packaging for many clients – across many industries. Sometimes, we’re enlisted to help source the actual cans, bottles, tubes, or jars that a client might be using. After all, the size, shape, and type of container will have a huge influence on the overall design.

Some people fail to realize that there’s more to packaging than just how it’s perceived once it’s on a shelf. While that is a large part of it, there are other considerations. For instance, a product that comes in a very small – or very fragile – container, may need a larger box in order to keep it secure during transport and while on display. A product that is sensitive to light or air may require a thicker, opaque container.

Larger packaging is not always meant to mislead

There is no way to know what P&G’s motives were when they selected certain containers for their Olay products. Perhaps there was some concern that a smaller jar would dissuade consumers from paying a premium price for their products, so they sourced (or had manufactured) a container that would hold the same amount of product, but appear larger, or more “premium.” Or, perhaps it was more a matter of aesthetics – they found jars they liked that held the amount of product they wanted to sell, and never considered the so-called “dead space” involved. Either way, I’m not certain how I feel about these slack fill laws.

Slack fill laws are intended to protect the consumer, but do they?

The premise for a slack fill law is understandable. Manufacturers have been caught using the same product packaging they’ve always used while providing less product in that packaging – in order to maintain pricing on the package, while actually increasing the unit cost of the product. That’s misleading, and consumers should be protected from such actions.

Then there’s the case of cereals and snack foods, where there is always a disclaimer stating that the contents may “settle.” While that’s likely true, there’s typically a fair amount of “air” in almost every box of cereal or bag of chips you buy. But if the weight listed on the product matches the weight of the product inside, then isn’t the company doing its job by accurately informing the consumer?

Premium packaging will suffer from slack fill laws

One of the Olay jars in question was the jar for the REGENERIST LUMINOUS™ tone perfecting cream. It’s a higher-end jar, with what would be considered sort of a “double wall.” It appears as though there is a thick layer of glass around the outside. I’m sure this gave the packaging more weight, as well as more size – providing a more premium look and feel. Olay is certainly not the only brand using this type of packaging. In addition, the box for the 1.7 oz. jar of the REGENERIST LUMINOUS™ was approximately twice the size as Olay’s box for its 2 oz. Active Hydrating Cream. As stated before, the smaller jar may have required a more structured box to keep the jar secure during shipping and display.

I am not a proponent of misleading consumers in any way, nor am I defending Olay. In fact, I am often motivated to find ways for companies to use as little packaging as possible (less waste, better for the environment, etc.) In this particular case, I don’t think Olay (and P&G) were grossly misrepresenting their product. They perhaps could have used different packaging, but that may not have given them the overall effect they were looking for. The net wt. statement on the front of both the jar and the box was clear and readable, and the box even showed the jar as “actual size.”

Protecting the consumer is important, but is it simply a case of “size matters?” Will companies be forced to use the smallest packaging available in order to avoid potentially running afoul of these slack fill laws? It’s an interesting case.

Aug 07, 2015
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