Bombay HC grants relief to Hindustan Unilever in ‘soap war’ against Sebamed makers, stays order for 4 weeks

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In a relief to Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) and Wipro Enterprises Ltd, the Bombay High Court on Thursday permanently restrained the manufacturers of Sebamed soaps from broadcasting or printing advertisements that allegedly “disparaged, denigrated, ridiculed or condemned the soap brands Lux, Dove and Pears, owned by HUL.

A single-judge bench of Justice Anil K Menon also directed USV Private Limited, manufacturers of Sebamed soaps to destroy all copies of advertisements that the company might have been using so far and restrained them from publishing or broadcasting any further derogatory material. Wipro Enterprises had filed a separate plea against Sebamed makers.

After Advocate Bimal Rajasekhar for USV sought stay on the operation of the court’s order to seek relief before an appellate forum, the bench said that the USV ought to be given an opportunity to challenge the order and stayed its order for four weeks.

Senior advocate Virag Tulzapurkar and advocate Hiren Kamod for HUL had argued that while most of its soaps are completely safe, gentle and not harmful to skin at all, the USV’s campaign, is creating a scare in the minds of consumers “to make unjust gains” by “fraudulently creating a market for their products”.

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The HUL, which had approached the HC in January, last year had also stated that the advertisements were not only “misleading’ but are outright disparaging and also infringe registered trademarks of its products including Lux, Dove, Pears and Rin.

HUL was aggrieved by three audio-visual advertisements of USV for Sebamed cleansing bar claiming that same disparaged Lux soap, Dove Bar and Pears Soap by insinuating that these soaps were equivalent to Rin Detergent soap, belonging to HUL because of the pH levels of the said products.

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The HUL lawyers claimed that USV, through its higher priced product, was creating doubt in consumer’s minds against HUL’s leading affordable soaps in the market so as to make “unjust gains through fraudulent means.” They claimed that pH level was not the only determinant of the product’s effect on skin.

The HUL had submitted, “These products have been rubbished by the impugned advertisements of the Defendant and have been equated with detergent soaps which by their very nature have a totally different composition and function and have been shown in poor light with direct references to the aforesaid brands of the plaintiffs.”

Last year, the HC had temporarily restrained USV from using “disparaging advertisements”. However, USV had assured modifying or editing the impugned advertisements across mediums and had said that same shall not have any reference to the HUL’s Rin detergent bar or any other detergent soap or washing detergent. The Court had then allowed USV to use modified advertisements.

However, the Court had permitted Sebamed to run its advertisement comparing its cleansing bar with HUL’s Dove soap in its ‘current form’ and no ad-interim relief was granted to the HUL in that regard.

Detailed order will be made available in due course.

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