Pills and Publicity

August 5, 2009 at 7:37 pm (Media, Nutritionism, Supplements) (, , , , , , )

[BPSDB] Food supplement manufacturers need to advertise their wares. Sometimes they do this by advertising directly, sometimes by using something that has been referred to as “advertising equivalent exposure” – planting PR puff pieces in the press, for example. There are downsides, though. Occasionally, their advertisements will fall foul of the Advertising Standards Authority (sometimes because they are untruthful and unsubstantiated) and some of their PR puff pieces have come under the scrutiny of bloggers.

Someone submitted a complaint against Nature’s Best Health Products Ltd and the ASA found that the ad “breached CAP Code clauses 3.1 (Substantiation), 7.1 (Truthfulness) and 50.1 and 50.20 (Health and beauty products and therapies)” and upheld all three of the complaints, deciding that “The ad must not appear again in its current form.” Nature’s Best had advertised a lutein supplement with a line to the effect that their product could protect the eyes and implied claims that “the product could have an effect on age-related macular degeneration” and “the extracts of bilberry, blackberry and grape seed in Eyewise contained potent antioxidants that had a strengthening effect on capillary walls and could maintain healthy eyes”.

Equazen, meanwhile, were found to be in breach of “CAP Code clause 50.3 (Health and beauty products and therapies – general) and 50.21 (Health and beauty products and therapies – vitamins, minerals and other food supplements)” and “clauses 3.1 (Substantiation), 7.1 (Truthfulness), 50.1 (Health and beauty products and therapies – general) and 50.21 (Health and beauty products and therapies – vitamins, minerals and other food supplements)” for an ad which “implied the product [fish oil pills] could improve all children’s school performance” and “implied the product could treat the symptoms of ADHD, a serious medical condition, and could therefore discourage essential treatment”.

Anybody feeling sorry for Equazen at this point should note that the firm themselves complained* to the ASA about an ad for St Ivel milk that claimed their milk was ‘clever’, using this claim: “Experts in children’s development believe more Omega 3 may enhance a child’s concentration and learning”; and this one: “Recent scientific studies suggest Omega 3 may play an important role enhancing learning and concentration in some children”. The ASA considered that “The ads breached CAP Code clauses 3.1 and 3.2 (Substantiation), 7.1 (Truthfulness), 50.1 (Health & beauty products and therapies – general), 50.20 and 50.21 (Health & beauty products and therapies – vitamins, minerals and other food supplements).”

Equazen again crop up when discussing the promotion of food supplements in the context of ‘news stories’. The farcical trial initiative trial that was conducted in Durham schools was widely and uncritically reported by the media. Ben Goldacre followed the story from the beginning and one of his more recent posts on the trial that wasn’t includes these comments:

The county council said it was doing a “trial” of fish oil pills in children, but the trial was designed so that it couldn’t possibly give useful information – not least because it had no placebo group – and was very likely to give a false positive result.

Durham has finally announced, in a formal response to a written question to the county council, that the trial in 2,000 children was never intended to produce any data on children’s performance. Specifically they said this: “It was never intended, and the county council never suggested, that it would use this initiative to draw conclusions about the effectiveness or otherwise of using fish oil to boost exam results.”

Goldacre went on to point to a number of occasions where those involved in the initiative had implied (or stated outright) that it was a trial and that they expected to see benefits – and even that they would be able to “track pupils’ progress and measure whether their attainments are better than their predicted scores”.

Brilliantly, there is a report available on the Bishop Auckland town hall website which includes analysis of the results (download Omega_3_Report as PDF) and conclusions. If the trial was never intended to produce any data, then why has this data not only been produced, but also included in the report? See holfordwatch for further comment on this report.


*I am aware that some businesses use, for example, the MHRA as a tool against competitors and wondered if this could be quantified somehow. Unfortunately, the MHRA told me that this information is not recorded by the Central Enquiry Point (to be honest, I hadn’t really expected this info to be recorded but it was worth asking the question). The number of calls and email received to the Central Enquiry Point in the last financial year were 33,738 and 16,434 respectively, but there is no breakdown of these figures that would indicate how many of these calls and emails came from companies reporting their competitors.


ASA judgements: Nature’s Best Health Products Ltd; Potters Ltd t/a Equazen; St Ivel.

Durham fish oil scandal: http://www.badscience.net/category/equazen/


  1. Zeno said,

    Excellent, jdc. It’s good to highlight ASA judgements like these so everyone gets a better idea of how they work and come to decisions.

    Pity there doesn’t seem to be the same level of transparency at Trading Standards.

  2. jdc325 said,

    Thanks Zeno.

    I was disappointed by the TS response to Adventures in Nonsense. Be interesting to see the response to his FOIA request.

  3. Mojo said,

    It’s not just supplement manufacturers who complain about each other. Check out the complainant in these adjudications:

    Ashraf Uddin Ahmed t/a Ashraf Herbal Homeo Medical Centre
    Sultana Begum
    East London Homeopathic Centre
    Forest Gate Homeopathic Practice

  4. Zeno said,

    Thanks, Mojo.

    This London Free Homeopathic Health Centre lot are a bit litigious (in the ASA sense)!

  5. jdc325 said,

    Thanks Mojo – that’s interesting. I sometimes wonder who out of sceptics, consumers, and competitors are responsible for the most complaints about businesses of this nature. I think other routes may be safer than the ASA for businesses wanting to snitch on the competition as (AFAIK) complainants aren’t normally named by Trading Standards, MHRA etc.

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