Coca-Cola's claim that its Minute Maid pomegranate-blueberry juice was the real thing failed to impress the Supreme Court yesterday.
The court observed that Coke's use of name for a product that contained 0.3 per cent pomegranate juice and 0.2 per cent blueberry juice was "misleading," and "deceptive" among other things.
The remarks were occasioned on a challenge from POM Wonderful, makers of 100-per cent pomegranate juice, brought under a 1946 law that prohibits false advertising.
Though Coke countered that the name was allowed under two laws governing Food and Drug Administration, the argument failed to cut ice with a majority of justices.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked Coke's attorney, Kathleen Sullivan why the company was using the name in a misleading way.
The case would likely be decided on the basis of which of the various enacted by Congress carried the most weight. POM Wonderful contends that the Lanham Act prohibits mischaracterisation of competing products.
POM attorney Seth Waxman said that fitted Coke's product perfectly, as it contained only an "eye-dropper" of pomegranate juice.
He said it amounted to a teaspoon in a half gallon, the rest being almost entirely less expensive apple and grape juices.
According to Waxman, Coke intentionally designed a label that grossly misled consumers.
At issue was whether federal law permitted the sale of a product with a name or a label that was almost sure to mislead consumers, and how much latitude manufacturers had in marketing.
According to justice Anthony M Kennedy, Coca-Cola was effectively asking for a right to "cheat consumers," even though the Lanham Act prohibited selling products with a "false or misleading description."
According to commentators the lopsided argument suggested the court would revive Pom Wonderful's lawsuit and strengthen the federal ban on false advertising.
The suit had been dismissed by a federal judge in Los Angeles and the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco earlier.
The judges ruled that a separate federal law regulating food and drugs gave juice makers wide freedom to label their juice drinks, as long as the actual ingredients were disclosed.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg observed that food and drug laws protected the health and safety of consumers, but the law against false advertising protected them from being fooled by misleading labels.