The random thoughts of a sceptical activist

When only the best will do

Yet more interesting Advertising Standards Authority adjudications, published yesterday.

Some woo magnetic ‘posture support’ thing was advertised in a Trinity Mirror newspaper. The ASA challenged:

…whether the product could help ease pain, as claimed.

The advertiser pleaded that:

…they had advertised the product for some time without complaint.

Well, that’s OK then. That proves it works, doesn’t it? Not quite.

They did not however have documentary evidence to support the advertised claims.

Tut, tut. Making claims without first holding the evidence to back up those claims? Cardinal sin, I’m afraid. The ASA rules (CAP) clearly say:

Substantiation

3.1 Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove all claims, whether direct or implied, that are capable of objective substantiation. Relevant evidence should be sent without delay if requested…

More ASA guidance

While we’re looking at the BCAP, it goes on to say:

The adequacy of evidence will be judged on whether it supports both the detailed claims and the overall impression created by the marketing communication.

So, it’s not good enough to provide any old evidence that happens to support your specific claims, an advertiser must be able to back up the general impression their advert gives the general public.

Also:

3.2 If there is a significant division of informed opinion about any claims made in a marketing communication they should not be portrayed as generally agreed.

So, if there is significant informed opinion that opposes what an advertiser claims, you can’t give the impression that your claims are generally accepted.

Lots to be learned there, methinks, for anyone who has to abide by the ASA’s guidance.

Getting back to the complaint, it was upheld, saying:

We considered that, in order to substantiate that the product could help relieve pain, Easylife needed to produce evidence in the form of robust, peer-reviewed clinical trials.  Because we had not seen such evidence, we concluded that the claim was misleading.

Just not good enough. Note the “robust, peer-reviewed clinical trials”.

A veritable plethora of bogus claims

A second adjudication was about an advert for a ‘microcurrent therapy device’. The advertiser tried to provide robust evidence for the efficacy of their device, it’s just that their idea of robust didn’t quite tally with the ASA’s exacting standards.

They sent two reviews of the use of Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation (CES), a letter to the editor of a medical journal about CES and a table of studies related to CES.  TMS also sent several articles related to studies that involved CES as well as a study that was conducted as part of a PhD degree.

The complaint was upheld. They noted that the author of one of the reviews was the designer of the device:

We therefore considered that, although the review had been published, it could not be considered an impartial account of all the evidence available and did not therefore constitute robust substantiation for the claims in the ad.

Impartiality is important, it seems. They also said:

We also noted one of the reviews stated “this review cannot clearly state that one treatment is better than another due to differences in study methodologies, diagnosis and patient characteristics”, which we considered made clear the evidence was not sufficiently robust to substantiate claims about the specific effects of CES.

Interesting.

We noted that two of the articles TMS sent related specifically to fibromyalgia, which was not referred to in the ad; the other articles suggested that the area was worthy of further research but were related to studies with small sample sizes and/or results that were not statistically significant and/or possibly a result of a placebo effect. The PhD study stated that it was limited because it was not double blinded and made estimations of changes but did not take direct measurements.

We considered that the letter to the editor of a medical journal similarly did not constitute robust substantiation for the claims.

We also considered that the table, that listed studies on CES in general, did not on its own constitute robust substantiation for such claims.

We also noted that a number of studies in the table were carried out on alcoholics and psychiatric patients and considered that those would not be sufficient to support claims for all stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia sufferers.

Is that the best they could do? Irrelevant articles; diversionary tactics; ‘further research required’; small sample sizes; statistically insignificantly results; a result of the placebo effect; not double blinded; inadequately measured outcomes; a letter to the editor; a list of studies; confounding variables. Not a jot of evidence.

The ASA concluded:

We considered that we would need to see more robust scientific studies, that were specific to Alpha-Stim and carried out on a sufficiently large number of human subjects in order to substantiate the claims that it could aid stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia sufferers as stated in the ad.

We considered that the reviews sent by TMS did not constitute sufficiently robust evidence.

We concluded that, because we had not seen robust evidence specific to Alpha-Stim to support them, the efficacy claims in the ad were misleading.

A second complaint about this device:

The ASA challenged whether the references to insomnia and depression, which were serious medical conditions, could discourage essential treatment.

The advertisers tried to weasel their way out of this one, saying:

…they would always advise anyone suffering from clinical depression to consult their GP before using Alpha-Stim.  They also said they would never suggest that a consumer should use Alpha-Stim instead of prescribed medication or therapies without first getting consent from their own GP, because they did not want to discourage essential treatment.

The complaint was upheld, not convinced by the advertiser’s assurances:

We considered that references to ailments such as depression might discourage readers from seeking help from a suitably qualified medical practitioner by implying that the product had curative effects.  We concluded that the ad was irresponsible, because it could discourage consumers from seeking essential treatment for serious or prolonged medical conditions.

Action:

The ad must not appear again in its current form.  We told TMS not to make claims for which they did not hold robust substantiation.  We also told them not to make reference to prolonged or serious medical conditions in their marketing material.

A pretty devastating demolition of the advertisers plethora of ‘evidence’ and a severe indictment of the advertisers blasé regard for robust scientific evidence and irresponsible attitude to his customers health.

The god of the gaps?

Yet another adjudication from yesterday, this time against an evangelical church offering ‘freedom from pain, addiction or guilt’. The complaints were that these claims were ‘irresponsible and likely to exploit the vulnerable’ and ‘were likely to discourage people from seeking suitably qualified medical advice for serious medical conditions’.

No evidence was offered by the church, especially none for the existence of their invisible, undetectable subluxation god who might effect cures for these afflictions. The ASA’s assessment was:

We were concerned, however, that the ad referred to treating those suffering from pain and addiction and considered that the use of the claim “Are you looking for freedom from pain, addiction or guilt?” directly targeted those who were suffering from medical conditions, some of whom might be vulnerable.

They concluded:

…because the ad went beyond offering emotional or spiritual healing by implying attendees were likely to be cured from physical ailments or addictions, the ad could discourage people from seeking suitably qualified medical advice and thereby exploit the vulnerable.

Back to this ‘exploiting the vulnerable’ thing again. Can’t the ASA just let advertisers make wild, unsubstantiated, dishonest, unscientific claims? No. Their job is to ensure adverts are:

…legal, decent, honest and truthful and consumer confidence is maintained.

To do this, only the best will do when it comes to evidence.

Does all this remind you of anything? (See here, here and here if you can’t quite remember.)

11 Responses to When only the best will do

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