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Campbell's complains, watchdog agrees: Progresso ads exaggerated S. Jersey farm ties

Cheddar and bacon from Vineland, really?

Acting on a tip from South Jersey-based rival Campbell's Soup Co., the advertising police have busted General Mills' Vineland-based Progresso soups division for exaggerating its use of homegrown South Jersey produce in a string of video ads. General Mills, based in Minneapolis, agreed to change the ads, ending the dispute.

The Advertising Self-Regulatory Council's National Advertising Division, an investigative group run by the Better Business Bureau, on April 5 "recommended that General Mills, Inc., modify or discontinue certain broadcast advertisements for the company's Progresso-brand soups, finding that the advertising conveyed the unsupported message that most or all of the ingredients are sourced from farms in rural, southern New Jersey."  Statement here.

Progresso might have been okay if it showed honest images of the sprawling farm town's sunburned Sicilian-descended growers hauling crates of tomatoes and peppers from the Mexican workers sweating in their fields to Progresso's nearby soup factory. Instead, Progresso presented a scrubbed, flyover, Midwestern-looking vision of Vineland as endless rows of neat cornfields, plus homey food-prep scenes. Campbell's said the ads implied everything in its soups from bacon to Cheddar cheese is Vineland-grown.

Vineland is indeed the hub of South Jersey's still-vigorous garden-vegetable growing-and-shipping region. Investigators found that Progresso went too far, however, in implying that it sourced all its soup ingredients to local farms.

The ads "challenged" by Campbell's included four TV commercials – titled "Chicken," "Dirt," "Farm," and "Light." (You can view one of the ads here.)

"Each of the television spots at issue opens with the text 'Vineland, N.J.' displayed on the screen amidst a background of growing crops, and underneath this is written, 'Home of Progresso,' " the investigators noted. (Most Progresso soups are still made there, as Campbell's acknowledged.)

But Campbell's "argued that the broadcast spots conveyed a 'local sourcing' message. For example, in the 'Chicken' spot the voiceover states, 'in Vineland, it's all about flavor,' while a tractor is shown driving through a farm." Campbell's "contended that the next shot – fresh vegetable and chicken ingredients on a cutting board – created the misleading impression that all or most of Progresso soup ingredients are sourced locally in Vineland."

Progresso said that wasn't its intention, the investigators noted. But "following its review of the advertising and the evidence in the record," the investigators found all four ads "reasonably conveyed the unsupported message that most or all of Progresso's ingredients are sourced in Vineland."

The National Advertising Division "recommended that General Mills modify or discontinue" the ads. Also, that it acknowledge some Progersso soups aren't made in Vineland, or specify which ones are, "if it is truthful and accurate."

General Mills told investigators it "is pleased" with the decision and that Progresso "agrees to comply with its recommendations." Voluntary compliance means there'll be no finding of "wrongdoing" or "impropriety." Nor any "endorsement" of the changed ads by the investigators.