Surely a scientist should find a product advertising itself as ‘scientifically proven’ to be particularly appealing out of respect for the discipline they study. Why then is it when I see these words attached to a household commodity that it rouses a deep sense of mistrust? Is this simply a bout of intellectual snobbery or are companies actively misleading their customers? With the preliminary belief that my scepticism was more deep-rooted, I set out on the task to separate the scientific fact from marketing jargon in an attempt to discover the extent to which well-respected brands attempt to attract our custom with bad science.
One recently publicised offender, Danone, had its TV advert banned for claiming to be ‘scientifically proven’ to help children’s natural defences. However, there are many more that slip through the net. The Advertising Standards Agency said that although it banned the advert the evidence put forward by Danone was much better than many other studies it regularly comes across. Surely statements such as ‘Bikini Celluli Diet- an essence that helps to ‘burn fat” (Dior) are pseudoscientific and completely misleading?
Most people are able to successfully avoid the ridiculous claims made in junk emails and pop- ups on the internet, but what makes the examples above more difficult to ignore is the fact that the claimants are household brands. Provided they use the correct phrasing they are able to get away with dropping in scientific words without actually committing to a statement that needs to be backed up with evidence. Most advertisements are suitably vague and reliably subjective, for example “The appearance of ‘orange-peel’ quickly and visibly diminishes, helping improve skin tone” (Dior). Sometimes these companies choose to avoid being picked up by the ASA by including their qualifications in the ‘small print’ for example the Dior Bikini Diet advert may burn fat but fleetingly adds ‘only in vitro’. Also the wide use of scientific jargon in everyday language helps them to evade conviction as many of the words used now have a less specific meaning or now have multiple definitions.
Even when objective claims are made and, as often is the case, several studies exist that back it up, there is nowhere near as much conclusive evidence as is required for a medical trial or publication in a popular journal. The evidence for functional foods is often subjective, with there being no more evidence for probiotics being actively good for your health as the numerous conflicting statistics on red wine or chocolate. This can mean that the studies are perfectly sound but in general the nature of nutrition and cosmetics research tends to be highly speculative and controversial. This could be due to the fact that funding is often most easily obtained from those with a vested interest in the research, namely the food and cosmetics industries. Many companies have set up their own research institutes for this purpose.
It is easy to see why so many of these ads exist and why they are so successful. They play on the respect that the public have for science and scientists, especially when they see the content to be beyond their understanding. Hence this works so well for common household names because it involves such a level of trust. This means that they accept the objective claims through trust and the subjective claims through being vague enough to be logical.
It is obviously perfectly understandable that advertising needs to sell a product but they also have a responsibility to provide correct information and not mislead their customers. Being in the interest of the brand not to jeopardise its reputation, many try to avoid conflict, especially if it involves being named and shamed by the ASA.
However, it is apparent that companies do exploit science in their advertising strategy, making the most of its reputation. This is an extremely successful technique that works on our subconscious even if our scientific knowledge tells us otherwise. This may seem harmless apart from leaving us a bit out of pocket when we reach for the more high-tech of shampoos but it also has wider implications. Probiotics have managed to find their way onto the GCSE biology syllabus with marks being achieved for writing that they “strengthen the immune system”. This is a better reason than any for tackling the problem if it means that false science is finding its way into common understanding.
We are entering an era where science is playing an increasingly important role in our culture, and keeping science fact from fiction is proving to be increasingly difficult. Science should, by definition, be one discipline to remain free from the “spin” we already have to sift through in our everyday lives.