Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, 15 August 2009
You will have noticed – from the fish oil pill saga, and the Herceptin coverage – that journalists can cheerfully make grand claims for a product which would be impossible in any advert. This week the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that the Daily Express newspaper repeatedly tried to circumvent advertising rules by running pages with a glowing, supposedly editorial article about a miracle product, and then a more sanitised, paid-for advert at the bottom.
The results were predictably dowdy: Christopher Biggins’ mum talking about the cure for her arthritis; LipoBind weight loss pills; and a magnetic menopause product called LadyCare, which you place over your groin, and which I can only fairly describe as a fanny magnet.
But direct payment is not the only way to get editorial coverage, as we can see by tracing LipoBind’s impressive media profile over the past year. In April 2009 the Telegraph published an article headlined “half of women have muffin top waistlines“, based on new “research… the ‘Waist Lines’ report… compiled by weight management supplement LipoBind”. In December 2008 they ran with “Kelly Brook has the body most women crave“, a “new study” on women’s beliefs about their weight by “researchers” for “the weight management supplement LipoBind”. In September 2008 it was “Truckers and lawyers top list of Britain’s fattest professions”, with two whole paragraphs of quotes from the LipoBind spokesman. These are news stories in a national newspaper.
Where does all this research come from? The Telegraph is not alone. The Mirror covered more LipoBind studies (lots of brides would like to have plastic surgery, and so on). In August the Daily Mail had Katy Hill recreating that bikini scene from James Bond, as part of another LipoBind survey.
Most if not all of these surveys are conducted by OnePoll. They won’t tell me anything about the questions they asked, the responses they got, or the people responding, so I couldn’t possibly assess whether their results are sound, but I doubt it. To gather a representative and scientific sample of the UK population giving thoughtful responses they have a website which says: “Register using our simple sign-up form and start earning cash right now.” To companies, they offer a “no coverage, no fee price structure”, with tailored seduction for journalists, and other services which include “mining the data”.
Media analysis company GroupM forecast that advertising revenues for newspapers will be down 25% this year. They are short of cash, they are short of money to pay people to fill their pages, and they print PR-reviewed “research” straight from the press release, because it’s quick and it’s cheap: these stories are now ubiquitous, but they’re not science, or research, or reports, or studies, nor are they news. Even the accompanying photographs of celebrity Katy Hill – which papers would normally have to pay for – are provided by LipoBind. These articles are adverts.
And nobody is immune. I love the Guardian. On Monday we printed a news article about a “report” “published” by Nuffield Health, headlined “No sex please, we’re British and we’re lazier than ever”. “This is the damning conclusion of a major new report published today,” says the press release from Nuffield about a document they call the “Nuffield Health Fitness Report”. News? I asked Nuffield’s press office for a copy of the new report, but they refused, and explained that the material is all secret. The Guardian journalist can’t have read it either. I don’t really see how this “report” has been “published”, and in all honesty, I wonder whether it even exists, in any meaningful sense, outside of a press release.
Nuffield Health are the people who run private hospitals and clinics which you can’t afford. In the week when the NHS is under attack from all sides in the US, The Guardian gave free advertising to Nuffield, for their unpublished published “report”, which nobody even read, in exchange for 370 words of content. This is endemic, and it creeps me out.