The Advertising Standards Authority and me

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:

In short, I will continue to do all I can to challenge and publicise misleading  healthcare claims, working with the ASA where possible.

Further reading

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



An alliance of playground bullies Skepticat UK, 20/12/11

21 responses to “The Advertising Standards Authority and me

  1. Thanks so much for the mention and ping back. It’s great for traffic.
    I do think you go looking for things to complain about, it’s so much easier Than actually doing anything helpful or worthwhile. Makes you feel important. I’m glad something does.

    Keep taking the chemicals, they clearly suit you.
    Lisa Chalmers

  2. If you post a complaint on the internet about one misleading homeopathy site, shouldn’t the internet retain the memory of the complaint and render it effective against all other homeopathy sites everywhere?

  3. I love the way woosters like to snarkily thnk you for sending traffic to their site, as if every ckick through meant another mark signing up for their nonsense. It would also be nice if they could avoid going straight into the ad homs and other insults.

  4. I love the way you and your posters have to hide behind your strange little “handles” and can’t commit to your opinions enough to put your real names on them.
    And another link to my website – cheers!

    • I can’t really say much on behalf of anyone else but I do know that ‘Ken’ is called Ken and that Skepticat’s identity is public knowledge.

      Although my name is hardly a secret, I continue to use a pen name because I’ve received a fair amount of outrageously defamatory abuse, some of it pretty threatening. I have no desire to direct abusive cranks towards my home and family.

      On a more general and lighter note, you might find some clues to our identities here:

  5. Ah, the old “anonymous” jibe. Nope. I’m not exactly hiding behind a handle I’ve used for over 10 years.

  6. This is a great service that you are doing. I mean it, there’s always too big a lack of independent voices on such matters. Keep on going!! I am now a fan 🙂

  7. Why do you think you are so much brighter and better than the average consumer? surely they can make their own minds up on what they want to buy? where does this I want to be everyone’s nanny attitude you come from? individuals happily buying products that make them happy, who gives frigg if you think they work or not, I don’t and clearly the ASA with it’s own budget and time constraint is concentrating on dangerous products first and then the others and have politely told you to get a frigging life in their letter, so why don’t you?

    • I’m not saying I’m brighter or better than anyone else. I’m not in the habit of telling people what they should or should not buy. I don’t want to be anybody’s nanny. I am also careful not to waste the ASA’s precious resources by making frivolous complaints.

      But I just can’t escape misleading advertising! If I think harm could be done to the public then I find it very difficult to stand by and do nothing. This is when I make complaints to the authorities.

      By ‘harm’, I don’t mean merely ripping people off. I mean actual, physical harm – such as carrying out unregulated medical tests (based on scientifically nonsensical and long disproved theories) – which are not only a waste of time and money but which may also discourage customers from consulting a doctor. In some cases, customers may come away wrongly believing they have (to give just a few examples) cancer, diabetes, or a non-existent allergy (as in the case of live blood analysis

      Another way of harming people could be leading them to believe they’re buying a safe and natural product which can prevent or cure infections (and all manner of other conditions) when the product is mostly ineffective, virtually unregulated, certainly unlicensed and definitely unsafe (as in the case of colloidal silver

      If the product is cheap and not in itself harmful (as with these silly sports bracelets: then I don’t trouble the ASA with my concerns. I’d rather they dealt with the more serious stuff.

      Finally, it doesn’t matter what I or anyone else thinks. It isn’t about opinions: it’s about evidence and about safety.

    • So, trying to report facts and make people aware of the reality of these kinds of things is somehow arrogant or someone trying to show they are brighter? I don’t think so.

      MORE needs to be done to deal with the industry of “health foods” and “alternative therapies” when they are advertised falsely.

  8. Wasn’t there a reply here before that accused you of engaging in “terrorism” by asking these questions? Or am I misremembering that?

  9. If you really want to do something about a continual scam that we are all paying for it is the bloody flu jab. Cochraine review showed it to be totally useless, all that mythology about flu pandemics this is far more disgracful and damaging than anything you have complained about so far and each year it is costing the tax payer £15 million for a total pile of woo. When the DOH was contacted to respond about the Cochraine review it just said well it makes old people feel comfortable they are doing something!

    Roche lost all the Tamiflu data last year for the swine flu scamdemic and even the BMJ was at a loss to deal with that.
    These issue make your efforts disproportionate Josy and it is kind of funny that the ASA have told you to stop wasting taxpayers money.

  10. I love this moderation crap on these septic sites!

  11. Pingback: Denton’s dirty tricks campaign | Josephine Jones

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