A Defining Moment For Synthetics

By Katherine Bui
published October 1999 Lubricants World
While the field is not wide open, a new ruling confirms that the definition of "synthetic" is still largely in the hands of marketers.

Part 1 of 2

Synthetic. The word has become almost a proscription in the industry, especially among scientific and technical organizations, such as the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and the American Petroleum Institute (API).
Ask a marketer of motor oil products formulated with hydroprocessed mineral oils, and you might get a definition that involves cost-efficiencies and consumer choices. Ask an engineer involved in manufacturing polyalphaolefins (PAOs) or esters, and composition might be the determining factor. Despite the intense debate over the origins of synthetics, an absolute definition has remained in limbo for many years, with much of the responsibility placed on base oil manufacturers and lubricant marketers.
It was only recently, in a decision by the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, that the first basic action and ruling in the United States set a strong precedence for a broader description in the marketing of synthetics. In this first installment of a two-part story, Lubricants World takes a look at the NAD's ruling and explores the revived debate surrounding the definition of "synthetic."
The Ruling
In a ruling released April 1999, the NAD addressed complaints filed by Mobil Oil Corp. regarding the truthfulness of Castrol North America Inc.'s claim that its Syntec® provides "superior engine protection" to all other motor oils, both synthetic and conventional, and that Syntec's esters provide "unique molecular bonding." Mobil charged that the advertisements inaccurately represented that the current formulation of Syntec is synthetic. The challenge was filed based on statements Castrol made in a series of television commercials, Web site publications, package labels, and brochures.
The NAD divided its decision to address three issues raised in the complaint. Is the reformulated Syntec synthetic motor oil? Has Castrol substantiated its superiority claims? Has Syntec been degraded?
The NAD determined that the evidence presented by the advertiser constitutes a reasonable basis for the claim that Castrol Syntec, as currently formulated, is a synthetic motor oil. NAD noted that Mobil markets hydroisomerized basestocks as synthetic in Europe and elsewhere. NAD noted that the action taken by the SAE to delete any reference to "synthetic" in its description of basestocks in section J354 and API's consequent removal of any mention of "synthetic" in API1509 were decisions by the industry not to restrict use of the term "synthetic" to the definition now proffered by Mobil. Further, the SAE Automotive Lubricants Reference Book, an extensively peer-reviewed publication, states base oils made through the processes used to create Shell's hydroisomerized basestock, severe cracking, and reforming processes may be marketed as "synthetic."
Despite its prior ruling, the NAD advised that Syntec could not advertise a superior protection claim.
The NAD determined that though Mobil presented clear evidence that Castrol has made a major change to Syntec's formulation, it was not sufficient to demonstrate that Syntec has been "degraded."
Industry Reaction
In a statement to Lubricants World, Castrol's legal counsel said, "The NAD's decision was clearly correct. In accepting Castrol's position on the appropriate definition of synthetic basestock and concluding that Castrol Syntec is a fully synthetic oil, the NAD accepted the overwhelming evidence Castrol presented, which included the opinions of leading scientists . . .and statements from Shell, Exxon, and other industry sources. The NAD also relied on the SAE's rejection of a restrictive definition of the type advanced by Mobil. In fact, although it had the right to do so, Mobil did not attempt to appeal the NADS's decision."
Mark Sztenderowicz, a senior research engineer from Chevron Products Co.'s Base Oil Technology Team, stated his company agreed with the NAD's decision. "We feel strongly," he said, "that 'synthetic' is a fairly broad term and a number of basestocks besides PAOs fit the description. To the extent that the NAD came to a similar conclusion and was unwilling to limit 'synthetic' to a narrow definition, we agree. We further agree with what we consider to be a commonsense interpretation that consumers perceive the word 'synthetic' to mean something man-made, but not made necessarily from a particular compound or component."