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If you say that your product is ‘reliable,’ does it have to be?

Companies advertise all the time saying that their products are terrific and better than the competition. But at what point can a company be sued if a product doesn’t live up to the hype?

That question came up recently when a customer sued Apple, claiming that his iBook G4 laptop failed shortly after the one-year limited warranty ran out. (He claimed that certain solder joints degraded each time to laptop was turned on and off, resulting in the computer eventually breaking.)

According to the customer, Apple was guilty of “misrepresentation.” That’s because Apple had advertised the product as “durable,” “rugged,” “reliable,” “high-performance,” and “ideal” for students. The customer argued that such a product ought to last at least a couple of years.

But an appeals court rejected the suit. It said that under California law, Apple could be sued only if it had made a “specific and measurable claim, capable of being proved false or of being reasonably interpreted as a statement of objective fact.” In this case, Apple’s self-laudatory advertising was “mere puffing,” the court said. It didn’t amount to a specific claim that the product would last longer than the one-year warranty.

The court also noted that “durable” could refer to the laptop’s ability to withstand being dropped on the floor, as opposed to lasting a long time.

The decision is good news for advertisers, but of course it doesn’t mean that businesses can now make exaggerated claims for their goods. Much depends on the specific wording of the advertisement, as well as the nature of the product.

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