False advertising is not the remedy

March 11th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in acupuncture, adverts, alternative medicine, bad science, homeopathy | 3 Comments »

False advertising is not the remedy

Ben Goldacre
Thursday March 11, 2004
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· I wouldn’t want you to feel powerless in the face of the new dark ages irrationality: there’s so much more to being a bad science activist than just feeling smug after winning an argument at a party, as Dr Danny O’Hare demonstrates this week.

“The Children’s Clinic in Brighton’s pernicious advertising managed to find its way into my (primary age) children’s book bags in the local school, thanks to over-zealous promotion by a satisfied, if deluded, customer. Anyway, I read the ad and they were claiming to cure asthma, a life-threatening, distressing condition for which real scientific medicine cannot even provide complete symptomatic relief, much less cure. The claim was obviously false.”

Needless to say, the clinic was planning on “using only complementary therapies such as acupuncture, homeopathy and osteopathy”. O’Hare complained, rather heroically, to the Advertising Standards Authority. After much bleating on the part of the Children’s Clinic, the ASA agreed that sentences like “after the remedy she was completely back to normal… no asthma” did rather imply that the clinic thought it could cure asthma, and noted that the advertiser had not sent evidence to support that claim. (I could give them plenty to refute it.) “The authority reminded the advertiser that testimonials did not constitute substantiation.” The plural of anecdote is not data. Complaint upheld, and knuckles rapped. The only mystery is why we’re not doing this all the time.

· So, much as I hate to suggest that we could bring a government department to its knees with overwork, if we could all report just one a week each… it only takes a minute to fill in an online complaints form at www.asa.org.uk, and they’re more hardline than you might think. “Medical and scientific claims about health and beauty products should be backed by trials conducted, where appropriate, on people.” Sanity at last.

And if you can convince your local trading standards department that they’ve broken the Trade Descriptions Act 1968, then they may have committed a criminal act. Just to make life easier for you, that’s www.tradingstandards.gov.uk. The prisons will be overflowing. I found the sentence “advertisements should not imply that the population in general is likely to be deficient in vitamins or minerals” especially heartwarming, although it’s a shame that the Press Complaints Commission doesn’t take the same line on flaky alternative health columnists in national newspapers who recommend their friends’ expensive supplement pills.


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