Advertising Therapy – Don’t Know, Don’t Understand, Don’t Care..

Posted on June 8, 2012

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Having recently read through the ASA’s 2011 annual report it soon becomes clear just how much work this organisation does in ensuring that the advertising seen by the public is Legal, Decent, Honest & Truthful.

However I am also reminded that in some sectors there is still much work to be done!

In particular online advertising by Complementary & Alternative health practitioners is still very problematic when it  really shouldn’t be, the rules are quite clear.   On 1st March 2011 the remit of the Advertising Standards Authority was extended to cover:

1. Advertisers’ own marketing messages on their own websites.
2.  Marketing communications in other non-paid-for space under the advertiser’s control, such as social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
3. Marketing communications on all UK websites, regardless of sector, type of businesses or size of organisation.

This  isn’t news, it happened over 17 months ago and there was plenty of prior notice that these changes were being implemented.  The ASA’s recent 2011 annual report (published 30 May 2012) shows they have been very busy enforcing this new area of their remit, as this tweet from 30 May 2012 says:

So perhaps it’s worth asking why we still have a large number of websites,  twitter accounts and Facebook pages where CAM therapists feel it is acceptable to publish misleading claims.

I don’t believe the problem lies with the ASA, they are a relatively small organisation having to regulate a huge amount of advertising on a variety of media formats.  I do believe the problems lie with the CAM therapist and also with a number or trade bodies and CAM regulatory organisations.

From my own experience the CAM therapists responsible for these lingering claims seem to fall into 3 broad categories.  The Don’t Knows, the  Don’t Understand and the Don’t Cares.

The Don’t Knows.  It is difficult to see how any CAM practitioner who uses the internet could fail to be aware of the rules, however I’ll accept that there may still be some.  Well if you are reading this I can only suggest you follow this link to the ASA’s website and do a little reading:  http://www.asa.org.uk/  This should be enough for you to realise that there are some regulations you need to be aware of.  At this point you may find that you move from being a ‘Don’t Know’ to a ‘Don’t Understand’ ….. If so, read on!

The Don’t Understands.  There will be some who claim that they don’t fully understand what they are allowed or not allowed to say.  To those people I can only suggest they take another look at the easy to understand, free advertising guidance issued on the ASA & CAP websites, it is quite clear on what is and is not permitted.

A quick visit to the CopyAdvice website http://www.copyadvice.org.uk/ should give you all you need to ensure your advertising and website complies with the regulations.  At very least you will see that:

All ads in the UK, wherever they appear, must be legal, decent, honest and truthful in line with the UK Code of Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing (The CAP Code). The Copy Advice service is here to help you avoid breaking the rules and potential action by the Advertising Standards Authority by giving you free advice on your non-broadcast marketing communications before they are launched.

The second part of that paragraph is important.  You can contact the Copy Advice service and they will give you free advice on how NOT to break the rules.  There are a number of  industry specific guides, including rules for the ‘health & beauty’ sector and there are a number of clearly written guides for some specific therapies.

One common cry from the CAM practitioners who perhaps don’t understand the rules is that they don’t specifically claim to ‘cure’ a particular condition.  What needs to be remembered is that the ASA look at any claim from the perspective of a member of the general public, not the therapist.  Even listing medical conditions alongside your therapy could be seen as implying some form of benefit from treatment:

Guidance on Health Therapies & Evidence:

“4. I don’t claim to ‘cure’, why can’t I claim to ‘treat’ certain conditions?
Whether you use the words ‘treatment’, ‘treat’ or ‘cure’, all are likely to be seen by members of  the public as claims to alleviate  effectively a condition or symptom. We would advise that they are not used either directly or indirectly, through the use of visuals for example. Of course, if evidence has been shown to support the claims, then these words can legitimately be used.
Marketers should be mindful that merely listing medical conditions could imply their treatment or therapy is effective”

But there are claims you can make, even the ASA’s general guidance for therapies (Therapies: General) lists a number of conditions for which claims may be made:  (I’ve highlighted the bit about evidence, just in case you were tempted to overlook it!)

“Examples of ailments that may be referred to in marketing communications (subject to the marketer being able to prove the efficacy of the product or therapy) include: arthritic pain, IBS, neck ache, feeling down and temporary erectile dysfunction.”

More importantly there are a number of specific conditions for which you cannot make claims. Remember you are responsible for the content of your advertising and  if you want to avoid being the subject of an ASA complaint, you really should make yourself aware of the ones that apply to your particular form of therapy.

Finally we have the worst of the bunch …….

The Don’t Cares.  These are the ones who are aware of the rules and what they are permitted to advertise, but believe that the rules don’t, or more correctly shouldn’t, apply to them!  They are Wrong!

It really doesn’t matter if you are a  homeopath, osteopath, craniosacral therapist,  chiropractor or any other type of therapist.   The list at the top of this post shows (item 3) that the ASA’s remit applies to everybody regardless of whatever industry you are in  ……  but those in the ‘Don’t Care’ category already know this!

What all these therapists need to remember is that when it comes to evidence, you are not a ‘special case’, no amount of special pleading will lower the standards required nor will it remove your obligation to comply with the regulations.   If your evidence isn’t up to the required standard, then you are unlikely to be allowed to make the claims and if you continue to do so then you leave yourself vulnerable to complaints.

Sadly there are a large number of therapists in this group who are in professions that have some form of statutory or voluntary  regulation.  Any type of regulation or membership of a trade body usually comes with an obligation to practice in accordance with some form of Code of Practice, Conduct or Ethics.   The majority of these codes contain rules or guidance on advertising, even if this is missing  (or has been deliberately removed, as was the case with the General Chiropractic Council), this does not mean that you are exempt from the ASA regulations.

Since the changes to the ASA’s remit, most of these organisations have issued their own advertising guidance or advice, so those still making claims are now in a situation where they are breaking the ASA/CAP codes as well as their own professional Codes.

In most cases it also means that the various regulators are failing to ensure their members comply with their own codes of practice or conduct, something that I’ve already looked at and will be coming back to in the near future.  Organisations like the General Chiropractic Council and the General Osteopathic Council have certainly issued guidance, they have also made some limited attempts to view members websites and offer advice on CAP compliance as and where needed.

So you would assume that any remaining claims would be difficult to find, or the regulators would have taken some action to remove them.  However many of their members continue to make unsubstantiated claims.

It would be better all round if these were voluntarily removed by the therapists concerned …..  but there are always other methods!

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Posted in: ASA