The random thoughts of a sceptical activist

Another weapon in the skeptic’s arsenal

Mooted nearly a year ago, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) have today announced that their digital remit is to be extended to cover:

  • Advertisers’ own marketing communications on their own websites and;
  • Marketing communications in other non-paid-for space under their control, such as social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Starting on 1 March 2011, this landmark agreement means that claims made on a seller’s website will be subject to the ASA’s Committee of Advertising Practice Code (the CAP Code), just like adverts in newspapers, magazines, and paid-for online advertising.

This will allow challenges to all sorts of dubious claims on the Internet. Things like homeopaths selling their magic beans and claiming they can cure all sorts of ills. Perhaps like this one (cached), making claims about:

  • All stress related complaints: irritability, weepiness, panic attacks, mood swings, the feeling that ‘you just can’t cope’.
  • Depression
  • Anxiety, including health anxiety disorder
  • Lack of energy, tiredness. Post viral fatigue, M.E., Candidiasis (candida overgrowth).
  • All hormonal imbalances; under / over-active thyroid, menstrual problems, etc.
  • All auto-immune disease; rheumatoid arthritis, Lupus, M.S., etc
  • All allergic conditions; food allergies, environmental allergies etc.
  • All metabolic disorders; syndrome x etc.
  • All pregnancy related conditions; sickness, heartburn, constipation, blood pressure, breech etc.
  • All acute health problems eg fevers, colds and flu’s, sore throats, earache

Or chiropractors.

The full wording of the ASA’s new remit is:

Advertisements and other marketing communications by or from companies, organisations or sole traders on their own websites, or in other non-paid-for space online under their control, that are directly connected with the supply or transfer of goods, services, opportunities and gifts, or which consist of direct solicitations of donations as part of their own fund-raising activities.

We may have to wait and see exactly how the ASA interprets this and how ‘creative’ advertisers try to get round the rules.

Indirect claims

The ASA already rule on claims they consider indirect and it’s easy to conjure up some ‘indirect’ ways of advertising products online in an attempt to get round the new remit. For example, setting up a separate website that just lauds the products where there is no online shop to purchase the product, but where you have to go to a different website to buy whatever is being advertised.

The ASA have situations like that covered. The key phrase seems to be the one about websites that are under the control of the sellers. No doubt quack advertisers will be as inventive in trying to find loopholes as they are with making up claims.

Grace period

But why do we have to wait so long? It’s a whole six months away, after all.

The ASA say:

CAP’s decision takes effect following a six months period of grace, which will allow time for CAP to train and educate stakeholders about the extended digital remit and permit contractual marketing arrangements to run out or be renegotiated as necessary.

This means that sellers of AltMed have until then to comply — it would be rather foolish to leave it until March before considering what they say on their websites. They need to start revising their websites now.

Floodgates

It could well be that the ASA will have a mountain of complaints to deal with come 1 March. I’m sure they are well aware that that is at least a possibility. However, I think us skeptics need to choose our targets carefully. An overloaded ASA is not necessarily going to help, but a few, well-targeted complaints might fire a warning shot across the bows of many woo sellers in the UK.

Of course, over and above making complaints about adverts, we still need to tackle the so-called regulation of alternative medicine practitioners to ensure they have a robust code of practice in place and that they rigorously enforce it to keep their members under control and the public safe from misleading or downright dangerous claims.

However, this new ASA remit will be a very significant weapon in our arsenal.

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