You probably think I go seeking out this kind of stuff just to complain about it.
I admit that I have Googled certain terms with the sole aim of reporting advertisers to the authorities. I have perused leaflets of local practitioners on the lookout for dubious claims. I have signed up for Groupon emails covering areas nowhere near home – just to be kept informed of the latest weird and wonderful quackery hitting the nation’s capital.
But sadly, implausible advertising claims in the alternative health sector are so prevalent that I hardly need go looking for them. And since receiving this letter, I am no longer (generally speaking) in a position to make formal complaints:
This can leave me feeling powerless. It’s particularly frustrating when the misleading material comes to me first (as happened last weekend when I came across the Natural Patches stand at a local travel show).
Unfortunately for the ASA, my knee-jerk reaction (to tweet a link to the offending website) will probably result in more work being brought their way than if I’d simply put in a complaint of my own.
The letter above came as no surprise. I was well aware of the ASA’s problems with workload and I also knew that at least seven other complainants had received similar correspondence. However, the response I got to my Natural Patches tweets suggested that some of my followers may not be familiar with of the current situation.
I will attempt to summarise it here.
Since the ASA extended their remit in March 2011 to include company websites, the response has been significant and more than expected. CAP reported that
Complementary and alternative healthcare was the most complained-about sector, in the main because of orchestrated complaint campaigns by those opposed to what they saw as ‘pseudo-science’.
I assume this refers to the Nightingale Collaboration – who challenge misleading claims in healthcare advertising and ran a ‘Focus of the Month‘ campaign in March 2011 against misleading homeopathy advertising. It could also refer to Fishbarrel, which isn’t a campaign as such but certainly encourages people to make more ASA complaints about CAM.
However, as the ASA explain here:
We take all complaints we receive seriously, but we can act on just one complaint. We look at whether or not the Advertising Codes have been breached, rather than simply the number of complaints we have received.
The sudden deluge of complaints about homeopathy forced the ASA and the Nightingale Collaboration to change their approach.
The ASA issued this statement to discourage further homeopathy complaints.
For the following Focus of the Month (April 2011, craniosacral therapy), the Nightingale Collaboration said
Rather than asking you to submit complaints about websites to the ASA, we’d like you to send all the details to us in the first instance.
We will select some websites that demonstrate the range of questionable claims being made and make a number of test complaints to the ASA. We believe this will enable them to expend their resources on dealing with these key complaints and any adjudications will set a precedent for all practitioners. Their Compliance Team can then more easily deal with any other practitioner making questionable claims.
We believe this will be at least as effective as making numerous complaints to the ASA.
I personally have concentrated on the more obscure CAM therapies and products, partly because I realise plenty of others are complaining about the mainstream ones.
The ASA explain here that following the remit extension, they are now taking
a ‘lead case’ approach to dealing with large volumes of complaints about advertising on complementary and alternative health practitioners’ websites, which includes investigating only a few representative cases and ensuring wider compliance through subsequent action by the Compliance teams
I was made aware of this in August 2011, when I received this letter, which informed me that they were taking such an approach with Live Blood Analysis and were therefore not going to investigate all my complaints.
If the quackery is too obscure, however, there is the risk that the ASA will decide that the potential for consumer detriment is much lower for this therapy by comparison to others. There are examples of this approach here and here, when letters were sent out to explain that complaints against ads for colloidal silver ‘detox’ foot baths have been ‘de-prioritised’ until sufficient resources are freed up.
I don’t plan to challenge the ASA on any of these points. Despite them having warned me off, there are a number of things I can still do to tackle misleading advertising:
- Ensure that previous adjudications are being complied with.
- Ask the advertiser directly for evidence to support their claims.
- Blog critically about misleading advertisers.
- Tell other like-minded people about misleading ads (eg using Twitter).
- Report offenders to Trading Standards or the MHRA if I believe they are breaking laws (such as the Cancer Act or Medicines Advertising Regulations).
In short, I will continue to do all I can to challenge and publicise misleading healthcare claims, working with the ASA where possible.
The Homeopaths and the Advertising Standards Authority Andy Lewis, The Quackometer, 01/04/11
Attacks and attempts to gag Homeopaths Remedy Lady, Lisa Chalmers Homeopathy Blog, 28/03/11
Quacks Denounce ASA as Incompetent and Threatening Andy Lewis, The Quackometer, 03/08/11
ADVERTISING STANDARDS AUTHORITY SUCKS Anon, October 2011
THE ADVERTISING STANDARDS AUTHORITY ROCKS! Anon,October 2011
An alliance of playground bullies Skepticat UK, 20/12/11