U.K.’s ad watchdog slaps down misleading health ads

The U.K. Advertising Standards Authority this week banned a number of misleading ads with unsubstantiated claims for health products. Its warning to advertisers: don’t make claims you can’t back up.

Zaggora, Boots, Health & Beauty Innovations and Vitabiotics were ordered to stop using misleading ads. The items concerned included menopause treatment, weight loss hot pants, pain relief patches and more. Search, social and website ads for sports retailer Zaggora’s weight loss hot pants made claims about the pants’ fat burning abilities. Some of the research was dubious. Its sample were sizes too small; its survey questions too limited in scope; and it lacked of peer reviews from research it had conducted itself.

Claims about the levels discounts offered on the product were also subject to complaints. The company was unable to provide historical data about its prices, or so it said. The complaints were upheld, ads banned and the company was told not to mislead in future.

Complaints about ads from Vitabiotics were also upheld by the ASA, resulting in its ads being banned. The ASA ruled that one ad mislead viewers about the efficacy of a vitamin product. Vague claims of a “leading British scientist” being involved in a product’s development is no real indicator of its health benefits, the ASA said.

It’s not uncommon for advertisers on either side of the pond to mislead, but the mechanism for complaints in the U.K. is peculiar. The ASA is a self-regulatory body funded by advertisers to deal with advertising complaints. As a non-statutory organization, its powers are limited; it cannot interpret or enforce legislation, but it can compel advertisers to take down misleading or offensive ads. Cases of this kind rarely end up in court.

About 80 percent of the ASA’s complaints are about misleading ads, rather than those that cause offense. It has been alleged that the practice of complaining to the ASA has been orchestrated between competitor brands and agencies, or by campaign groups hoping to drum up press coverage.

Though it’s a rare occurrence, recipients of regular complaints are subject to more scrutiny and tougher sanctions. Ryanair was referred to the Office of Fair Trading for its disregard for the rules. French Connection, which used its FCUK brand name in a of number inappropriate ways, eventually had its ads vetted by the ASA.

The Committees of Advertising Practice, the body administered by the Advertising Standards Authority which writes the UK Advertising Codes, recently tightened up its guidelines for another booming but controversial health category — e-cigarettes.

“We’ve moved quickly to put in place appropriate and clear regulation around e-cigarette advertising,” said Shahriar Coupal, director of CAP. “While the debate about e-cigarettes continues our commitment is to make sure they are advertised in a responsible way and that children are protected”.

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