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Clinically unproven

On the misuse of science in advertising

Philip Strange 12 October 2008

Snake oil: miracle cures should be approached with skepticism

Clever advertising types exploit the feelings of helplessness many people have when confronted by scientific claims

Advertising may be described as the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it

- Stephen Leacock

Science sells, or at least science can induce us to buy. Those clever advertising types know this and exploit the feelings of helplessness many people have when confronted by scientific claims. One particularly insidious example of this is the use in advertising of the phrase Clinically Proven. This label conjures up for me an image of friendly scientists in white lab coats holding clipboards. They have performed a carefully controlled clinical trial and are smiling and giving the thumbs-up to the product they have tested. “Clinically proven” in an advertisement adds a veneer of respectability and reassures us about the safety of its product: it is using science to sell.

Of course, “clinically proven” should only be used for products that have undergone a full clinical trial. There are strict guidelines for conducting clinical trials to ensure that the results are meaningful. If the guidelines are not followed, the results are likely to be untrustworthy.

In a recent case, the “clinically proven” tag was used in advertising for RoC Complete Lift Cream, and this got its manufacturers, Johnson and Johnson, into deep water. Complete Lift Cream is a snip at £18 for a 50ml pot and is sold to make the skin look lifted and firmer, to “rediscover a younger looking you”. The advertisement showed the face of a woman holding a tape measure and a pot of the Complete Lift Cream with the claim: “measurable lift in just 8 weeks”.

A second scientific ploy used in advertising is to say that the product contains a special chemical. No one will know what this is but it increases the mystique attached to the product. The accompanying text for the RoC Complete Lift advertisement stated that the product “contains patented THPE which re-tightens and firms the facial contours by contracting skin cells...Clinically proven to work in just 8 weeks of use”.

Bafflingly, however, the small print below the advertisement contained the statement “It has not been proven to have a physical lift effect”. This was added, I believe, to show that the effects of the cream, if any, were not long-lasting but it ended up negating everything the advertisement claimed.

Following two complaints from members of the public, the Advertising Standards Authority requested the advertisement be withdrawn as they said it was misleading and the claims could not be substantiated. Johnson and Johnson said that the product had been tested in a clinical trial. The Advertising Standards Authority examined the trial and concluded that it had not been carried out properly as no objective data had been recorded and only one person was rating the effects and this was a Johnson and Johnson employee. The advertisement was withdrawn.

The story was run in several papers, including the Daily Mail where one sceptical reader suggested that if you want to tighten your skin, then rub raw egg white on it and let it dry! It also reminded me of the story I read about the model Twiggy who won’t do any filming before noon nowadays as she has to wait for her face to “lift” – which it apparently does naturally.

I came across another example of the use of pseudo-science to add gloss to a product when I was in France recently. I was wandering around a supermarket and I noticed that some of the fruit juice on sale has semi-scientific messages on the carton. For example the pineapple juice said “contains fibre – for inner comfort” and there was a mixture of apple, grape, cranberry, blackcurrant and blackberry juices with a message “contains antioxidants – to help in the struggle against cellular ageing”. This sounds good, but does it really mean anything?

There is a widespread belief that antioxidants can counteract various deleterious processes in the body including ageing, heart disease and cancer. You see this in the popular press and one of the outcomes of this belief is the huge consumption of antioxidant supplements. But is there any evidence that antioxidants really have these beneficial effects? This has been addressed by the Cochrane Collaboration (an independent foundation) who analysed the results of a number of trials of antioxidant supplements and concluded that far from being beneficial, most of them had no effect and some of them might actually be harmful. So, based on the evidence, antioxidant supplements do not have beneficial effects.

This is all terribly confusing and to use these marketing tactics plays upon some of our deep insecurities. There is huge pressure in Western society for women to appear young and beautiful and the Complete Lift Cream takes advantage of that. We also want to live long lives untroubled by illness and this makes us easy prey for those who talk about the benefits of antioxidants.

What can be done? Not much I fear. This sort of thing will continue to occur and pseudo-scientific messages will be used to sell cosmetics and food. But we can try to be watchful for these claims. It is unlikely that a cream will lift your face so don’t be taken in. At least the Advertising Standards Authority is there to help in these cases.

Several newspapers derided Johnson and Johnson over this advertisement and ran critical pieces. Despite this, the same papers are happy to run crass science stories on a regular basis. Underlying all of this is the poor knowledge of science in the general population. This causes people to react with fear and awe when presented with science and makes them easy prey for the advertisers.

Related information

Editor's note: A distinction should probably be drawn between food and drink that naturally contains antioxidants, and pills and supplements containing these compounds. There are many food scientists studying the link between consumption of antioxidants and human health who do indeed believe that antioxidant-rich foods have proven benefits to health, and a large number of peer-reviewed papers are published in the literature each month on the topic. So the jury is still out on whether consumption of antioxidant-containing food and drink (as opposed to supplements) is good for you – to lump them in with bogus facelift creams might be a bit premature.