Homeopathy, celebrities and advertising

Yesterday, I took myself to the website of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) (primarily for purposes other than those I discuss here and which I won’t go into now, at least not until I’ve heard back from them regarding my enquiry; however, whilst there…) and conducted a search for ‘homeopathy.’

This was, I have to say – although, as ever, I find myself somewhat off the pace – fascinatingly informative. Upon widening its scope, on 1 March 2011, to encapsulate marketing/advertising on UK websites, it turns out that – surprise, surprise – the ASA received copious complaints about the online claims made by an array of (unnamed) homeopaths/homeopathy organisations, and is on the case. The siteholders in question were sent an instigating letter, informing that they were under surveillance, and with three months in which to comply with guidance on the marketing of health-related products and services, as stipulated by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP).

At the commencement of British Homeopathy Awareness Week back in June I took umbrage with various homeopathy organisations’ cheap, egregious, fallacious resort to endorsement by celebrity. Late in that week (20th June), the British Homeopathic Association (to take just one) proudly, unashamedly re-endorsed this tactic with the announcement of its long mooted ‘Celebrity Photography Project’, for which it had taken a bit of time ‘to put financial structures in place’, even though these did not include paying the partaking celebs – ‘… holding the source material of one of the homeopathic medicines that has helped them’ – for the giving up of their time. Well, they are lovely photographs, aren’t they? (Ten of them; well nine, actually: ‘Olympic hopeful James Ellington’ didn’t make the shoot; perhaps he hadn’t shaved in time.) Peruse for yourself this Goof’s Gallery. I’ll return to it shortly.

If you are occasionally wont to cast a sceptical eye over homeopathy’s cult practitioners/endorsers, I think you might find the ASA letter a worthwhile read. It reminds recipients that, as their respective

‘… website promotes a service and/or products to UK consumers, the claims that appear on it constitute marketing communications as defined by the… CAP Code.’

And then goes on to fairly provide advice on the acceptability or otherwise of claims made for (the efficacy of) homeopathy; clarifies any changes necessary for compliance with the code; and the timescale for effecting them.

Included are excerpts from the CAP Code, in repeated reminder of the requirement for ‘objective substantiation’. Again fairly, the ASA accepts ‘…that homeopathy might make some people feel better in some situations(yeah, well, so do lots of things, but let’s not quibble on that for now). But claims made must be provable. Unlike HM’s Government – which, despite concurring with the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy recommendation that homeopathy should not receive NHS funds, then weasel-y permitted Primary Care Trusts to continue wasting them – the ASA is satisfied that the lack of objective scientific evidence justifies action to prevent the misleading of patients. As the homeopathic mindset notoriously struggles with the concept of proof, the ASA succinctly makes clear the claims that can and cannot be made. I quote directly:

‘Claims you cannot make

You must remove any content from your website that claims directly or indirectly that homeopathy and homeopathic products can diagnose/treat/help health conditions.’

Way to go ASA!

I am amused by one of the following sentences:

‘Please note that any reference to health professionals in the Code refers to those that are recognised within the Health Care Professions and therefore excludes homeopaths (My emphasis.)

Lest it need be re-emphasised to the beguiled… Homeopaths are not medically qualified. They are not recognised as such within the Health Care Professions. “But,” they non-sequitur-ly whine, “many medical doctors are also homeopaths, so they must know what they’re doing, and so that means homeopathy works, and, nnnn… nn… nnnnn…. ” Sorry, the Code (rightly) is not taken in by this fallacious resort to (ought to know better) authority:

‘[If] Qualified doctors, nurses or pharmacists… and any other similarly medically qualified professionals, are also practicing homeopaths, they are not allowed to make any claims in any marketing communications for the efficacy of homeopathic services/products.’

Clear enough, you might think. Well, perhaps. The loopholing slippiness comes subsequently, under the heading:

‘Claims you can make’

‘… Provided you make clear that what is being said is the opinion of some, not a generally held belief, and it does not breach the Code [as above]…’

what is deemed to be acceptable (besides ‘general philosophical basis’ – oh dear) is How you believe homeopathy works.’ However, this does not – not – include

‘… how you believe homeopathy can benefit specific or general medical conditions.’

And then follows a paragraph I find particularly pertinent:

‘Please note that testimonials from patients (which must be genuine) that imply efficacy for homeopathic treatment do not constitute substantiation but may give a misleading impression that efficacy is proven. Therefore it is essential that any testimonials also only make general references to an improved sense of well-being.’

So, time, I think, to take another look at Goof’s Gallery. That I might regard one or two of these folk is by the by (as is my prior disregard of one or two others). What we’re concerned with here is what they are (quoted as) saying.

For example: David Bellamy says ‘the lovely cowslip… can be used for a number of health complaints including eczema.’ Debbie Moore claims that ‘Dr Sharma, a well-known homeopathic doctor’, cured her of an underactive thyroid. Gaby Roslin (her again) recommends (irresponsibly, in my opinion) homeopathy ‘on’ [sic] children; as does Annabel Croft, who seemingly advocates its superiority to antibiotics. Susan Hampshire recommends all manner of treatments for all sorts of (imagined) ailments. Lauren Vaknine credits homeopathic remedies for her overcoming of arthritis. Louise Jameson also seemingly recommends homeopathy over antibiotics for treating children’s infections; and cites sulphur as easing her menopause. Peter Hain would have us believe that homeopathy did for his young son’s eczema and asthma (at least I think that’s what he says; politicians, eh?). And finally on this authoritative roll call, ‘Rock glitterati’ (their words, not mine) Jo Wood, who goes all New Age natural on us, and is, well, a bit vague, really.

If I’ve managed to maintain your interest thus far, quickly scroll back up to that quoted paragraph on testimonials. The second sentence therein is potentially a bit misinterpretable. (Testimonials can only – like their quoting website – concern generalities? Or, testimonials can imply efficacy, providing they couple with a generality or three?). Whatever, I’m sure these celebrities are being ‘genuine’, in that they believe what they say. But (and please correct me if I’ve misunderstood any) do not several of them at least imply, if not make outright ‘… claims directly or indirectly that homeopathy and homeopathic products can diagnose/treat/help health conditions’? Which, to reiterate, are ‘Claims you cannot make’

The ASA has pointed out that it is (was? As per statement last updated January 16, 2012 ) not inviting further complaints in what is an ongoing monitoring program. As well as the advertisers complained about, they also contacted UK bodies that represent homeopaths and homeopathy. This, presumably, would have included the British Homeopathic Association. And to be fair (because I really do try to be), without conducting a comprehensive survey of its site, it does seem by and large to conform (skilfully) with the stipulations of the CAP Code. Except, that is, those recently included, under the radar celebrity testimonials, which, in my opinion, contravene the ASA’s rulings on acceptability.

I will be communicating this concern to the ASA. Now, what about those other sites…?

4 responses to “Homeopathy, celebrities and advertising

  1. Once again, another great post!

    I think a major problem we face is that homeopathy is allowed to exist under an illusion of being medicine. The term alternative medicine is so misleading to the blind consumer because it just sounds like another medical alternative, there is no explanation that its not medically or scientifically tested (or if it is, it failed, thus is not just called “medicine”).

    I hope that you post any replied you get from the ASA on this matter. As for the other sites, sadly, I think it will continue to go on “business as usual” until someday governments realize these sites, these business are causing actual harm to its citizens and it needs to be stopped.

  2. It seems like the essence of ideologies-magical thinking-scams is the lie of : “mind over matter.” Wish it — and it will make it so. Pretend there is no problem and there is no problem.

    Obviously that is an immensely powerful and profitable lie and the basis for all ideologies and magical thinking. It’s completely nonsensical but obviously triggers all sorts of irrational and harmful behaviors in about 99% of the world’s population.

    Back when our brains and social systems evolved, millions of years ago people died very quickly and young and couldn’t do anything about anything anyway so pretending apparently conferred reproductive advantages. It probably still does — for individuals.

    As the basis for public policy however, it’s a disaster. Individual beliefs magical are a horrible basis for group decisions. WWII proved that tragically.

    Still the best way to get people to give you money is to lie to them, tell them what they already know and want to hear and NEVER say anything they might disagree with. That is the cor skill of every con-person.

    • Thanks. Your last paragraph is interesting. On homeopathy: I don’t buy it, and I detest the marketing. Yet, I somehow prefer to think that the people who subscribe to, administer and – particularly – teach it do believe it. Disturbing enough – part of its cult-like appeal. Otherwise, we’re talking about some big sinister conspiracy… and I don’t think it is healthy for us to become paranoid about that.

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