Does this look like a product that doesn’t list honey as an ingredient?

Vicks NyQuil Severe Honey makes much of honey on its label and in ads…so why doesn’t it list it as an ingredient?
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Vicks via iSpot

· 4 min read

It’s starting to feel a lot like—gesundheit!—cold and flu season, and a TV spot for Vicks NyQuil Severe Honey is in high rotation, having aired 3,734 times between August 14 and November 9, according to iSpot, a TV measurement company.

The 15-second commercial would appeal to everyone’s favorite ursine denizen of the Hundred Acre Wood, mentioning “honey” five times and “honeylicious” once. The commercial depicts honey descending from a wooden dripper, as does its packaging, which has a dispenser cup shaped like a beehive.

It’s no wonder why a cold remedy would want to be associated with honey, a demulcent whose effectiveness at coating and soothing throats is borne out in numerous studies.

But for all it does to associate itself with honey, there’s something curious about Vicks NyQuil Severe Honey: It doesn’t list honey as an ingredient.

Sweet nothings? “So where’s the honey?”

That’s what Edgar Dworsky, a consumer advocate and lawyer, asked in a recent post on his website, Mouse Print. Dworsky noted that he’d reached out to Procter & Gamble, which makes NyQuil, to ask “how much actual honey, if any, was in the product, and whether they would modify their advertising to not give consumers the false impression that real honey and its medicinal benefits are features of this product.”

Dworsky wrote that P&G did not respond to his query, and still hadn’t when Retail Brew contacted him nine days after his post was published.

We emailed P&G’s Mollie Wheeler, who’d been cited as a Vicks spokesperson a year ago, to ask why honey wasn’t listed as an ingredient. Wheeler responded that while she was still at P&G, she no longer worked on Vicks, so she referred us to a general media team email and told us they would “route your request appropriately.”

Over four days we sent three emails to P&G’s media team, receiving three auto-replies assuring they’d respond “as soon as possible,” but never an actual response. So we emailed Wheeler again asking if she’d forward our questions to whomever had succeeded her, but she stopped responding.

So we did some digging.

Nothing to sneeze at: Consumers noticed honey wasn’t on the product’s ingredient list long before we did.

On the company product page for the Vicks NyQuil Severe Honey and Dayquil Severe Honey dual pack, a reviewer in October 2021 wrote that “the label is misleading” because it “makes you believe there is actual honey in the bottle” even though it’s not listed in the ingredients. The Vicks team responded to the review, and rather than disabusing the reviewer of that notion, wrote “Your feedback that you would prefer if it contained real honey is being shared with our team.”

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Just three months later, in January 2022, on the page for the nighttime product alone, when a reviewer complained that it “Just tastes bad and no honey on ingredient list,” the brand responded, “Our updated version is made with real honey.”

Does that mean it didn’t have honey, but it does now? So why isn’t honey listed as an ingredient?

Having no luck with P&G’s PR team, we called Vicks’s consumer line, where we reached a helpful and patient person. We won’t name them since we wanted to know how the brand was explaining this to consumers, and we identified as someone curious about the ingredient list rather than as a reporter.

In a 25-minute call that involved the agent putting us on hold twice—once to conduct research and the second time to consult a supervisor—we were told that “it does contain real honey.” The inactive ingredient list, the agent continued, includes the word “flavor,” and the honey ingredient falls under that category rather than being named.

Honey side up: A competing product, Robitussin Honey Maximum Strength, not only lists the ingredient but indicates what kind: “natural grade A honey.” It also lists, generically, “natural and artificial flavors.”

Lacking an explanation from P&G, Dworsky made a complaint—based on Vicks’s current commercial—to the National Advertising Division (NAD) of BBB National Programs, which investigates false and misleading advertising.

Laura Brett, vice president of NAD, confirmed it received the complaint but said it doesn’t comment on “pending inquiries” in a statement to Retail Brew.

Vicks “must have research that suggests that having honey as an ingredient in cough syrup is something that’s positive in consumers’ minds,” Dworsky told Retail Brew. “Why else would they say honey six times in a 15-second commercial if they didn’t think [it] was a significant selling point?”

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.