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Dyson takes a bite out of Shark's vacuum advertising

After a complaint from Dyson, the National Advertising Review Board found claims from rival Shark more like a fish tale.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Apparently, Shark has a bit of a problem with exaggeration. You might have seen infomercials for the Euro-Pro-owned vacs boasting Shark is "America's Most Recommended Vacuum" with performance "superior to all other upright vacuums." It looks like we won't be seeing that wording anymore after Dyson took issue with both and brought their claims to two of the advertising industry's governing bodies. This week, those groups upheld Dyson's claims, compelling Euro-Pro to revise the language of its advertising going forward.

Dyson requested an investigation by the National Advertising Review Board (NARB) and the National Advertising Division (NAD). Both NARB and NAD act as neutral appellate units as part of the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council. In separate press releases distributed earlier this week, NARB and NAD announced that they agree with Dyson and found Shark's claims improperly substantiated, recommending that they discontinue them.

Shark Rotator Pro Lift-Away
The Shark Rotator Pro Lift-Away Colin West McDonald/CNET

Shark based its "America's Most Recommended Vacuum" finding on online surveys. The surveys ask a simple yes or no question post purchase -- would you recommend this vacuum? Shark showed positive responses from 94.2 percent of participants versus 89.9 percent for Dyson according to data gathered from Amazon; Bed, Bath, & Beyond; Best Buy; Costco; Home Depot; Kohl's; Lowe's; Sam's Club; Sears and Kmart; Target and Walmart. Between these retailers, Shark claimed to have accounted for more than 85 percent of US vacuum sales. Shark then proceeded to use the phrase "America's Most Recommended Vacuum" and "America's Most Recommended Vacuum Brand" in its television and website advertising.

NARB found that Shark's numbers did not include purchases from brick and mortar stores, which still account for a large percentage of vacuum sales. They also found that not all retailers listed by Shark send a survey after an online purchase. Shark's data was limited and their sample size wasn't nearly as broad as their advertising language suggested.

Shark appealed the decision on the basis that their approach covers enough retailers, and therefore enough customers, to represent the vast majority of people who purchase vacuums. Ultimately NARB disagreed.

As for the "superior performance" claim, Shark tested their Rocket against the Dyson DC40 . The NAD actually validated the results of the test but shot down the language used across the ads, in which Shark claimed dominance over all upright vacuums. Again, Shark appealed and pointed to the disclaimers it included on its informercials, product packaging, and websites to go along with the its performance statements. The NAD still found the language misleading and the disclosures not prominent enough to avoid confusing customers. They recommended Shark discontinue or properly modify the claim.

The Dyson DC65 Animal. Colin West McDonald/CNET

In response to the decision, a Dyson spokesperson said, "We are thankful to the NARB and are pleased with the result. But our preferred focus is always developing new and exciting technology."

With a reputation built on prestige and a bit of mystique, winning this battle over language is important for Dyson. The company charges a premium for its products based on the idea that Dyson vacuums are more capable than anything else on the market. We certainly didn't find Dyson products to be a tier above the competition in our tests. In fact, the Shark Rotator Pro kept up well with the Dyson DC65 for a lot less. Still, the consumer perception of quality means a lot to any company.

Euro-Pro issued its own statement via email. "While Euro-Pro does not agree with the NARB's conclusion, Euro-Pro appreciates that both the NAD and the NARB are open to considering consumer online reviews as the basis for recommendations. For this reason, and because consumer opinions are at the heart of all of Euro-Pro's product innovations, Euro-Pro will find another means to share this very important consumer insight with its valuable customers."

It's worth noting neither the NARB nor the NAD invalidated Shark's data entirely; they just corrected the scope. As suggested by their statement, Shark may still find a way to use the pertinent information they gather with revised wording in a similar campaign.