The random thoughts of a sceptical activist

Advertising Standards Authority adjudications are fascinating!

Yes they are! Well, sometimes, anyway. As is how they arrive at their decisions.

An adjudication, published by the ASA on 15 July 2009 is worth looking at in detail. It was about a TV ad for a herbal practitioner, Darulshafa (Herbalist).

Ad
A TV ad, in Urdu, for a herbal practitioner showed a man limping into a clinic. The ad featured scenes of the clinic staff and then showed the same man playing football with a group of boys. The voice-over stated “Darulshafa herbal clinic has been established in the UK for 41 years. Mr Mazhar Rana is a qualified herbalist and has been practicing for the past 23 years … All our remedies are prepared using herbs from all over the world and to the finest standards possible. For treatment in good time contact us today”. On-screen text throughout the ad gave the contact details for clinics in Bradford, London and Birmingham, as well as a website address. One of the staff members stated “Darulshafa. Renewing traditions, inspiring quality”.

Issue
One viewer, a medical doctor, challenged whether the implied claim that the advertiser’s herbal remedies could treat and cure medical conditions could be substantiated.
BCAP TV Advertising Code: 5.1.1;8.2.6;8.2.9

So, this is a herbal clinic advertising its wares. The advert showed a patient client customer limping into their clinic, followed by scenes of the staff at the clinic and finally this man playing football, obviously cured of his affliction.

The association between the man’s recovery and his visit to the clinic is clearly made — they certainly offer no other explanation — and obviously one any viewer is supposed to make: they cured this man’s limp.

The doctor challenged whether this (implied) claim could be substantiated.

So what did the advertiser have to say?

Response
Darulshafa Shirqia (Darulshafa) said their practitioners were qualified herbalists and homeopaths who only offered treatments to patients after a detailed face-to-face consultation. Darulshafa argued that there was no reference in the ad to the man having used or benefited from any treatments or remedies that they offered, and they suggested that the ad could imply that the man had been advised to exercise more. They pointed out that the man was not shown in consultation with a practitioner or using any remedies, and that there were no direct or implied references to ‘cures’ nor any suggestion that people should not seek appropriate medical advice where necessary.

Even the broadcaster tried to back them up:

Venus TV said the ad did not claim to cure any particular illness, but provided the history of Darulshafa and contact details of their branches. They said there was no reference in the ad to any particular product or any cures brought about by a product. Venus TV said there was no suggestion that the man in the ad had received any particular product that allowed him to play football, or that he could not play football beforehand. They said they did not believe the ad would mislead viewers.

So, they never showed him being examined. They never showed him being offered any of their potions. They never said the man with the limp used any of their potions. They never even said he could benefit from any of their potions. They never showed him being advised to take exercise. They never showed him being advised to seek appropriate medical care. They never even suggested they had helped him. They said they certainly never claimed they had ‘cured‘ him!

Of course, the ASA were having none of this nonsense and weaselling. The complaint was upheld and they gave this assessment:

Assessment
Upheld
The ASA considered that the scene of the man limping into the clinic, followed by the scene of the same man playing football, implied that he had a medical condition that had been treated at the clinic. We considered that impression was reinforced by the claim “All our remedies are prepared using herbs from all over the world and to the finest standards possible. For treatment in good time contact us today”, which was spoken over the scene of the man playing football, and which we considered suggested that the man had been treated using herbal remedies.

Of course that’s what the advertiser had implied — and intended. They went on to say:

Furthermore, we were concerned that some viewers might consider the man had not only been treated but cured of his medical condition.

Of course that’s what they were trying to do. They knew fine that they couldn’t just come out and say: “we cured this man’s limp”. They had to be a bit cleverer, by saying it, but not actually saying it. You can imagine the conversation with their ad agency: “Yeah, that’ll be OK. We just show a customer hobbling in and then show him playing football later. The gullible will assume we cured him, but we’ll be safe ‘cos we never actually claim we cured him. The ASA will fall for that.”

Aye, right. The ASA are not as stupid as they thought and saw right through that trick.

The ASA ruled that Darulshafa had implied that they had cured this man, even if they didn’t explicitly claim they had cured him. They didn’t need to be explicit, but the implication was very clear indeed for all to see. An ordinary viewer would understand that the clinic had helped and cured this man.

Since the ASA ruled they had made a medical claim, there are other rules they then have to comply with:

We considered that, unless allowed by a marketing authorisation, illustrations that implied a cure of any medical condition were unacceptable. We were also concerned that, by offering a treatment or cure for a medical condition, the ad gave the impression that a medical consultation was not necessary for conditions for which qualified medical advice should be sought.

We noted that we had not seen any evidence that showed that the herbal remedies provided by Darulshafa could treat or cure medical conditions or that they held a marketing authorisation, and we therefore concluded that the ad was misleading.

If Darulshafa could cure this man of his limp, then all they had to do was provide the evidence. Surely they have evidence for the efficacy of their potions, ready to show any enquirer? And why should they have to bother with that pesky market authorisation? That involves proper testing and that costs lots on money. And only Big Pharma bother with that sort of stuff. So much trouble, so little point. They know it works. And for goodness sake don’t mention safety.

The ASA ruled that:

The ad breached CAP (Broadcast) TV Advertising Standards Code rules 5.1.1 (Misleading advertising), 8.2.6 and 8.2.9 (Medicinal products and treatments).

Action
The ad must not appear again in its current form.

So, what’s this got to do with chiropractors? (You knew it would have something to do with them, didn’t you?)

Some chiropractors make pretty clear claims for their treatments:

today’s chiropractors also diagnose and treat other musculo-skeletal disorders as well as a number of other conditions…
Chriopractic [sic] is an effective treatment for…
Chiropractic treats problems with joints, bones and muscles…

Some don’t even have confidence in their own abilities so don’t even mention any conditions they can treat/heal/help/relieve/cure. Like this one. There are certainly far more of this kind now websites have been purged.

Then there’s the ones who say things like:

Our qualified therapists are also highly experienced in…
Chiropractors are consulted for many conditions…
If you suffer from…Highland Chiropractic Clinic will create an individual care plan…
We commonly see patients with…

One even makes the claim Chiropractic has never cured anyone of anything! Honesty at last!

But the ‘cure’ word is nowhere to be seen in any of the others.

It appears they think that using these weasel words will fool the public into thinking they can cure all manner of ills (so they get the business) whilst getting round that nuisance of a Code of Practice (CoP) they were forced to sign up to.

Go on! Ask me if I think this weaselling would get past the ASA?

But, they don’t actually have to get past the ASA, do they: the ASA doesn’t have responsibility for websites. That’s the job of Trading Standards. But the General Chiropractic Council’s CoP clearly binds them to whatever guidance the ASA issues. Past adjudications form part of that guidance. The ASA states:

ASA adjudications provide guidance to the industry on how the advertising codes are to be interpreted and act as a record of ASA policy for consumers, media, government and all parts of the advertising business.

So whether they like it or not, the adjudication about the herbalist reinforces what we already knew: no amount of weasel words blind the ASA to what is really being said. And that has very serious implications for chiropractors making claims — explicit or not — they cannot substantiate.

2 Responses to Advertising Standards Authority adjudications are fascinating!

  • Being of an Asian background, I have heard nothing but praise for this practice. It's not a case of them claiming anything but perhaps the advertising company misguiding the advertiser. Did you consider that possibility? Nope! As far clinical trials are concerned, thousands of years of benefits by 80% of the world population not enough for you?

  • Perhaps the ad agency did give wrong advice to the advertiser. We'll never know. But it is irrelevant – the ad was still misleading. The advertiser can argue it out with whoever he employed if he/she wants to.

    If you have good evidence that some or all aspects of ayurvedic is efficacious, then maybe you should pass it on to the ASA?

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