Pandemic fear racked Australia last summer. The virus had ripped through nursing homes. A government official warned of more funeral homes and hospitals being overrun. One headline screamed about the virus’s deadliest day – a record that stood for four days, until a higher death toll replaced it.
No one knew if coronavirus cases were about to explode.
Amid the uncertainty, an Australian clothing company started trumpeting its “anti-virus activewear.” That July, Lorna Jane launched an advertising campaign for apparel covered in a “groundbreaking” spray called LJ Shield that the company claimed would eliminate and repel covid and other viruses, bacteria and fungus.
“Cure for the Spread of COVID-19? Lorna Jane Thinks So,” one advertisement read.
“With Lorna Jane Shield on our garments it meant that we were completely eliminating the possibility of spreading any deadly viruses,” another claimed.
Except there was no scientific evidence Lorna Jane’s clothes did any of those things, government regulators said. On Friday, a federal judge ordered the company to pay $3.7 million for violating the country’s consumer protection laws, calling the clothing maker’s conduct “exploitative, predatory and potentially dangerous.”
“This was dreadful conduct as it involved making serious claims regarding public health when there was no basis for them,” said Rod Sims, chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the regulatory agency that took the company to court.
Lorna Jane admitted it had made several false claims during the peak of the pandemic’s second wave in Australia but blamed a supplier for giving it bad information, the Guardian reported. The company won’t fight the court’s decision, according to BBC News.
Government regulators say Lorna Jane started a multiplatform advertising campaign for LJ Shield Activewear on July 2, 2020. In those advertisements, it said people who wore clothes from the new anti-virus line would be protected from covid-19 and couldn’t spread the virus.
In a July 3 media release, the company said it had spent two years developing the technology that led to “LJ Shield,” the filing says. That same day, in an Instagram post, an advertisement claimed the “revolutionary” treatment had been “tested and verified by Intertek Testing Services Taiwan – a testing, inspecting and product-certifying company with testing facilities all over the world.”
Lorna Jane kept making similar claims for most of July, the filing says. While it had rescinded most of them by August, tags on some of the company’s clothes claiming “this garment permanently protects you against . . . pathogens” sold in stores and online until at least Nov. 27.
Doctors quickly criticized the company. Harry Nespolon, the late president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, said the company’s assertions about its clothes destroying viruses, stopping their spread and protecting people were baseless.
“If you spray their product onto any fabric and expect that it will act as a ‘shield of protection’ for you by breaking through the ‘membrane shell of any toxic diseases,’ I have some bad news for you – this will not happen,” Nespolon told the Australia Broadcasting Company in July 2020.
“The only thing that will be ‘terminated’ by the ‘shield particles’ is the money in your bank account,” he added. “I suspect [the company] is cynically trying to exploit fears concerning the COVID-19 pandemic to sell clothes.”
On July 17, 2020, the Australian government’s Therapeutic Goods Administration fined the company nearly $30,000 for failing to register its product on the country’s official register of therapeutic goods.
Then, on Dec. 21, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission filed in federal court against the company and Lorna Jane Clarkson – its founder, namesake and director, who claims to have coined the term “activewear” in 1989.
At the time, the company vowed to defend itself in court and said it was “extremely disappointed” regulators were challenging the claims, the ABC reported. But in a statement on Friday, Australian regulators said the company admitted Clarkson approved the LJ Shield advertisements and was involved in both writing the copy and developing the images that would accompany them.
At the hearing, the judge said he took into account that the misconduct “emanated from a high managerial level within the company” and “was directed by Ms. Clarkson.”
“The advertising campaign was conducted in July 2020, at a time of considerable uncertainty, fear and concern amongst the public about the consequences and spread of Covid-19,” the judge said, according to the Guardian. “Lorna Jane sought to exploit that fear and concern.”
After the regulatory commission filed in federal court, the company cooperated, admitting to making several false claims and ultimately agreeing to pay the $3.7 million penalty.
That’s about two weeks’ worth of gross profits for the brand, which has 134 stores around the world, Nine News reports. Founded in 1990, Lorna Jane lists 21 retail locations in the U.S. on its website.
As an individual, Clarkson was not subjected to any additional fines.
There was no evidence the company actually profited from the bogus advertising, the Guardian reported. The company blamed a supplier for the false information.
“A trusted supplier sold us a product that did not perform as promised,” said Lorna Jane CEO Bill Clarkson, who is married to the founder. “They led us to believe the technology behind LJ Shield was being sold elsewhere in Australia, the USA, China and Taiwan and that it was both anti-bacterial and anti-viral. We believed we were passing on a benefit to our customers.”