Quacks with business suits

ScienceBlogs likes to take on quacks. Orac, over at Respectful Insolence, does it every Friday and does it well. It's a good project and I'm not against it. But there are a lot of quacks around that aren't called quacks. They have corporate suits and research departments. And advertising and marketing departments. Big companies. Like Nestle.

Recently a team of scientists in the UK decided to take them on:

[Physicist Jennifer] Lardge is one of an informal group of scientific researchers who had met through various workshops sponsored by the UK charity, Sense About Science. Over the past several months, the researchers started chatting about all the bothersome ways that certain advertisers... well, advertised.

The researchers were particularly irritated by companies that used scientific-sounding claims to back their products and market them to the public. Like Lardge, several of the researchers took it upon themselves to call up some of the companies whose advertisements they'd noticed and ask some more questions about the scientific research that went -- or didn't -- go into them.

Both the US and UK allow supplement products to be marketed without explanation of scientific efficacy, but they still have to abide by truth in advertising rules.

"I'm increasingly annoyed by the way companies use scientific-sounding language to make the unproven benefit of their products sound credible," wrote Harriet Ball, a biologist at Kings College London, in a report released Wednesday (October 10) by Sense About Science.

The report, called "There goes the science bit..." is a transcript of 11 conversations that researchers had with customer service people at companies peddling "Aerobic Oxygen" to increase oxygen levels in the blood, "Salt Lamps" that protect from electromagnetic waves, cosmetics that fend off more electromagnetic waves, and other abounding scientific claims in ingredient lists on supermarket shelves.

Ball called Nestlé about their Ski Yoghurts, which she had noticed had been recently re-marketed as containing "Activ8" -- a complex of eight B vitamins that, according to Nestlé, optimized energy release. She was put through to the nutritionist at Nestlé, who explained that Activ8 components "get the optimum nutrition out of your food and direct it to the correct areas."

"Is it also helpful to people who've got a good diet anyway, and have enough B vitamins already in their diet?" asked Ball.

"Well," the nutritionist responded, "if people have got enough B vitamins in their diet already, what it'll do, it'll optimize that."

"What do you mean optimize?"

"Well, it will get the most out of your diet anyway, by using the vitamins and minerals that's already in your healthy diet.'

"If you put an excess of vitamins into people's bodies," Ball noted, "they don't really use them, they just get excreted."

"Yeah, they get passed away in the normal way. If your body's got enough of the vitamins it needs, they won't do you any harm, they just get passed away in the normal natural way," was the response.

Ball asked if Nestlé had published any evidence supporting the Activ8 vitamin complex, but they hadn't. (The Scientist)

I picked up a magazine at random. Full page ad for RoC Retinaol Correxion, Deep Wrinkle Serum. Serum? It promised women would get ten years back in their skin appearance. Clinically tested. Right. On the page opposite a sidebar from the same company: Do our hands give away your age? it asked. "A breakthrough way to reveal younger-looking hands with Pure Active Retinol, the #1 dematologist recommended age-fighting ingredient that's clinically proven to reduce the signs of aging in just 4 weeks."

Then there's the Quaker Smart Heart Challenge. "Three grams of soluble fiber daily from oatmeal may actually help reduce heart disase risk as part of a heart healthy diet [asterisk here that this means diet low in cholesterol and saturated fat. It also says that one serving only has 2 grams of soluble fiber. Given the diet, I'd say whatever its benefits, the 2 grams of soluble fiber in a bowl of Quaker Oatmeal isn't much of a factor. The ad copy goes on . . . ]. That's because oatmeal . . . helps soak up cholestrol, actually removing some of it from your body." The whole point of this ad is that eating Quaker Oatmeal will give you a meaningful reduction in your risk of heart attack. I have a hard time believing this, but if you do, give me a call. I have a 1995 Volvo 940 looking for a good home.

Then there's the ad by Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center: "Cancer. Where you're treated first can make all the difference." A picture of a healthy looking middle aged male: "Four years ago, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. My doctors said I'd get the best chance for the best outcome at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. So I picked up the phone and made the most important call of my life. Etc." Sloan-Kettering is a good cancer center. I did some of my training there. But this ad is dishonest. It implies that if you are treated elsewhere you won't have as good a chance to live.

There are a lot of charlatans about. I'm not sure we should be putting so much energy in sniping at the marginal players and ignore the big fish. But maybe it's just me.

More like this

I also like the ads that don't even have much in the way of pseudo-science, just say things like "with our patented exclusive Preposterol forumula!" as if just the name Preposterol is supposed to make us believe it's something good. Hey! Preposterol! I've been waiting for that! I don't even have a clue what it is, but I need it now!

And in six months, we'll have improved, extreme Preposterol.

isn't there some trustworthy organisation or company
to review those offers ?

Underwriters Labs Anon.....But you dont need it if you market like the above. Besides, before they put their name on it they require testing of what you are supposed to be selling it as.

The only thing I ever saw that was marketed that was worth a damn was Oxy-clean which is what used to be in soap suds to clean clothes. Nowadays they can market it as 50 machine washings etc. and it is true. But your clothes aint clean. They also put chlorine neutralizer into washer soap to stop that fading of clothes. Faded but disinfected.

Billy Mays and the super soaker cloth that seems to be the best thing to soak up spills? Guess what? A terry cloth towel does the same and you dont have to pay for shipping and handling... It actually picks up MORE spilled material. Then you can take it and wash it in BLEACH to clean it. Ummmm........

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 14 Oct 2007 #permalink

This is because advertising laws don't let them out and out lie, but let them imply falsehoods. It's hard to legislate against "impliction" of course, but it would be nice to have some kind of reasonable person clause in there.

In the mean time, I hope we see some group or other scrape up the cash for some counter-ads, to educate people on the ways ads lie to people. People need to watch for what ads DON'T say.

eg: "may actually help reduce heart disase risk as part of a heart healthy diet"

This ad said exactly nothing. If it reduced heart disease, they'd say it reduces it, not merely speculate...

My doctors said I'd get the best chance for the best outcome at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

So the centre doesn't make that claim? Why not? Because they know it isn't true? You can say almost anything as "X says" in an ad. And if they really did give you a better chance, wouldn't they just say "We give you a better chance"? Why do they need to rely on this dodgy method?

"...reduce the signs of aging..."

Such a common one. It may have been clinically proven to do this - but what are the "signs" of aging? Is one sign, say, dry skin? Because if so then putting "serum" or "water" or "pooh" on there will all "reduce the signs of aging".

Actually, in Australia I'm pretty sure they can't even say that much any more. Here the standard line is "may help to reduce the visible signs of aging". And isn't "help" a great weasel word? If it DOES something, why can't they say that? What does "help" mean? Could it mean that they may get you so angry at their useless treatment that you become motivated to go get something that works? Sure, that's help.

This wouldn't matter so much, but "as far as I can tell" (great weasel phrase, that) a "large proportion" (weasel phrase again) of the population gets its education from the tv.

By SmellyTerror (not verified) on 14 Oct 2007 #permalink

UL Labs is strictly private and not a government agency. It is more a standardization group but also does safety testing. But I don't think they test for efficacy.

Um, what exactly is wrong with the Sloan-Kettering ad? I assume that it's a technical question of oncology. I'd assume that there is a pretty high rate of variation in survival/happiness between facilities, and can imagine that S-K would be a better place than others. If they are a worse place, and that's credible insofar as there is a lot of bad hospital management in Manhattan, then there is a real truth in advertising problem.

The ideal smackdown for this comment would tell me that there is not much variation between cancer centers. I would be pleased to be thus smacked down.

clueless: Here's the problem that I see. MSK is a good cancer center but there are many good cancer centers. Trying to figure if one is better than another is difficult because there are questions of case mix, who the attendings are, etc. It is not the best hospital for everyone, just on the basis that it may be more difficult to get to depending on where you live, etc. If it's your neighborhood hospital, fine. But they don't know that any particular person's experience will be better or worse with them than some other competent
place. So that's the dishonest part. What particularly bothers me about it is that they are taking advantage of people who are especially vulnerable and frightened so they can fill a bed.

My favorite is the ad for some shave lotion(I think it's Electric Shave), that promises a "52% closer" shave. I get a laugh just thinking of them taking a micrometer to someone's face.

How much for the Volvo? As a self-admitted member of the Marketing-Industrial Complex, my favorite misleading ad text is: "...NATURAL tasting flavorings..."
A close second is, "...all natural..." ingredients. What is an un-natural ingredient? Can it be natural tasting?

Vigilair, I have exactly the same peeve with "organic" food. My dad used to ask, what's the rest of the food supply, inorganic? I showed him a package of sea salt i happened to have around that was billed as "organic sea salt" and we wondered what portion of it had the carbon molecules.

By speedwell (not verified) on 15 Oct 2007 #permalink

I think the worse of the worse are the sugary breakfast cereal ads marketing sugar cereal as a "healthy part of this complete breakfast". What could be worse then sugar cereal with orange juice for creating a nation of diabetics?

I had a great comment about "Part of this complete breakfast" and OS beat me to it. Drat.

I love weasel words. Advertisers aren't allowed to say their product is superior, unless it is. However they can say "Nothing is better than our product," which literally means "we're all average."