Again and again I find myself getting really annoyed at the way science is used opportunistically in advertising. We are continually bombarded with claims that the effectiveness of a product is “scientifically proven.” Or that “scientists tell us” something which supports a product. Then there are those ads where actors dress up in white lab coats and wander around a fictional, but photogenic, laboratory while giving us a fairy tale explanation of the mechanism which makes their product so effective. And this misrepresentation is widespread – involving products from cosmetics and toothpaste to fertilisers.
This advertising exploits the credibility of science and scientists as trustworthy experts. Hence the use of white lab coats and sciencey sounding terminology. Even the citation of scientific literature, studies, and trials – with the full knowledge that the target audience has no way of checking these citations.
Many countries have bodies regulating what advertisers can and can’t claim. In New Zealand we have the Advertising Standards Authority(ASA). Our ASA welcomes complaints about advertising and its rulings can lead to adverts being removed. The complaint procedure is being used by members of the public. In 2014 the ASA received 871 complaints about 672 adverts – up 10% and 12% respectively from 2013.
The Society for Science Based Healthcare publicises the complaint procedure and has made many complaints itself on products like homoeopathic treatments and magnetic mattress underlays. One of their members, Mark Honeychurch, created a tool for accessing information from the ASA complaint database which provides useful information.
It turns out that one of the most complained about organisations is Fluoride Free NZ (FFNZ) – a group campaigning against community water fluoridation. It ranks 13th in the organisations having the most successful complaints made against them.
The data also shows that a relatively high proportion of those complaints against FFNZ have been successful. That tells me that the complainants have been able to present good arguments to support their complaints.
Anti-fluoride campaigners are well known to claim scientific support for their case. But analysis of their claims shows them to be based on misrepresentations and distortion of the science. They are a classic example of advertisers who opportunistically, but dishonestly, use science to promote their products.
I think the misrepresentation and distortion of science are widespread in advertising and the propaganda from activist groups like FFNZ. At times, the problem seems so immense it seems impossible to counter it. So it is great to see groups like The Society for Science Based Healthcare, and the many people making similar complaints, having this sort of success.
On the other hand, perhaps consumers are developing a healthy scepticism about advertising claims. That is also a good thing, as long as that scepticism doesn’t lead to denigration of the authority of science as the best way of understanding the world and testing claims.
That would be throwing out the baby with the bath water.