“A Quantitative Analysis Of The Frequency With Which One Company Is Promoted, And By Whom, In UK National Newspapers”
Updated 16th September 2006.
Susan Clark is an alternative therapy columnist who recently made a cheeky attack on her critics. It was subsequently noted that she promotes one company, Victoria Health, with some regularity in her writing. There is a large pool of alternative therapy writers in the UK, who all regularly promote specific products and companies. No background data was available on how frequently this one company is promoted in newspapers, and therefore it was impossible to assess whether Clark’s promotion of them represented an anomaly. This brief pilot study was aimed at providing further background data.
Since I couldn’t be bothered to cycle to the newspaper and go through all the newspaper archives systematically, I had a quick look at each newspaper’s archives through publicly available resources, as a pilot study. This data will be imperfect in that it will miss mentions of Victoria Health.
Victoria Health are promoted in the following newspapers and circumstances:
# by Susan Clark:
– 6 times (once a month so far) in the Observer.
– between 34 and 46 times (in the Sunday Times)
# 31 times by Emma Mitchell in the Guardian.
# Occasionally in “You” magazine (in the context of an explicit commercial relationship)
From this brief survey, several interesting negative findings also arose. No mention of Victoria Health could be found in other newspapers. Specifically, there were:
# no mentions in the Express:
# no mentions in the Independent:
# no mentions in the Telegraph:
# no mentions in the Daily Mail (from google alone) except once briefly in the context of an explicit commercial relationship.
With few and rare exceptions, it seems that all of Victoria Health’s many appearances in newspapers have been by two journalists: Susan Clark (in mulitple publications) or less frequently Emma Mitchell (in the Guardian).
One hypothesis to explain the frequency with which Susan Clark promotes Victoria Health was that they are a large company, who appear regularly in the media, and are written about by many journalists. From the results of the brief survey reported here, however, this seems not to be the case.
The frequency with which Susan Clark promotes Victoria Health in newspapers is therefore an anomalous finding This survey has also produced a second interesting finding, that another writer, Emma Mitchell, also promotes Victoria Health with notable frequency.
My personal feeling is that although these findings are a little extreme, this may well be, not fluke, exactly, but simply a reflection of the personal preferences of these writers. I contacted Grazia to get in touch with Susan Clark but received no response, if she wishes to get in touch do please email on email@example.com or any of the other email addresses. I contacted both the Sunday Times and the Observer, both were aware of the frequency with which she recommends this company’s products, both said they had mentioned it to Clark and been reassured there was no impropriety.
I contacted Victoriahealth: “Hi there… I wanted to ask you a quick question: what is the nature of your financial relationship with Susan Clark, alternative health columnist for the Sunday Times, the Observer, and Grazia, who often promotes your products?” They replied and were very nice. “Hi Ben Thank you for your email. When Susan Clark left the Sunday Times we invited her to write a weekly column for us and we paid her for those columns. However, she terminated this arrangement after just five columns as she was offered a post at Grazia.”
Update 19th September 2006:
It has been announced that Susan Clark is the newly appointed Editorial Director of â€œViva VHâ€, the inhouse magazine of www.victoriahealth.com. It says she will be writing for them exclusively. Whatever the reasons were before for her promoting VH – I honestly have no idea what was going on there, and again, I believe it’s just as likely that she was merely expressing a personal preference – she is now officially a writer in the pay of the very large industry of pill-peddling.
This to me is the point really. This is an industry, with financial interests, and the fact that it is not seen as such is testament to that industry’s excellent branding.
There is a modest but genuine and non-trivial prize for anyone who can find any examples from the archives of Susan Clark implying that doctors are somehow in the pockets of the pharmaceutical industry.
I’ve received this email from Susan Clark, she sounds very nice and I hope we do get the chance to chat, I genuinely enjoy talking to alternative therapists who can string a sentence together. As I’ve said, I’ve not been convinced this was a financial thing, but my strong impression is that alternative therapy columnists recommending specific products are industry spokespeople, as one would find for any other industry, and that we are somewhat blinded to this because of the excellent branding of the whole sector as, well, not being an industry.
I don’t have time to write anything right now but she said I could use her letter to update the blog, so over to Susan Clark, and good to hear back from someone for a change, normally people just give me the cold shoulder (this is an extract):
I am very flattered you take such an interest in my work â€“ maybe we should have lunch some time â€“ but I am afraid you will be very disappointed to learn I am not the wicked witch of natural health; just someone who found the topic interesting.
I am not and have never been interested in promoting Susan Clark. For example, I set up the What Really Works website several years ago because I had such a massive back catalogue of material and it made it easier to deal with people asking for information they had missed.
Although we sold links to raise money to pay the teccies and two part-time editorial staff, I never took any income from that site which is now run under a (FREE) license arrangement with those teccies and contributors. I wanted to shut it down but they felt it had a role to play for them.
I decided to stop writing columns and take the job of Editorial Director for the VH Club – which I was only offered at the end of the summer when they decided to include an on-line magazine – because:
(1) Iâ€™ve done the Q&As for almost 10 years and so am boring myself!
(2) I wanted to work alongside Shabir Daya because he is a pharmacist and therefore, in my opinion, not peddling crap.
(3) I edited for a long time before I was asked to write Whatâ€™s The Alternative? and am really pleased to be able to edit again.
I tell you this because this is not the behaviour of someone trying to rip people off.
I have never and still do not take any money for recommending products. That would make me some sort of saleswoman. When I accepted the post, I immediately resigned from the columns.
I think the Club is a great idea because it will ensure people are not buying rubbish from fly-by-night cowboys out to make a quick buck.
You may not be a fan of the field but it must have occurred to you and some of your bloggers, perhaps Victoria Health get the recommendations because they are good at what they do i.e. pharmacist advice, good customer care etc.
I am also afraid you will not find a winner for your competition; I have never adopted an â€œeither/orâ€ stance, I donâ€™t care if you go to the doctor or take a supplement. What I cared about was that you were in a position to make an informed choice.