ASA Complaint: U-GO’s Amber Teething Necklaces
In my previous post on amber teething necklaces, I described the problems with the therapeutic claims commonly associated with them. One of the websites I quoted is a New Zealand website, “U-GO” Products, that sells amber teething necklaces (among other things) online.
Late in 2012, I made a complaint about the content of their site. Took a screenshot of the site as it was at that point, with the offending phrases highlighted. Here’s what the advertisement said:
Wearing Baltic amber close to the skin is a traditional European remedy for baby teething.
Considered a natural analgesic, Amber is reported to help calm a baby without resorting to drugs. Used for centuries in Europe, amber’s natural anti-inflammatory and pain relieving properties are perfect to soothe teething babies.
Amber is a fossilized resin containing high levels of succinic acid, attributed for its pain relief and anti-anxiety properties.
When worn the bead warm against the skin, releasing its therapeutic properties safely and naturally.
After reading this, I wrote up a complaint to the ASA, which is included at the end of this post. The complaint followed this format:
- Explained how this product is a therapeutic product as defined in the ASA’s Therapeutic Products Advertising Code.
- Identified the therapeutic claims made in the advertisement.
- Stated that these claims lack substantiation, which is required by the code.
- Explained why these claims are unlikely to be true.
- This product has associated risks (I was able to cite the Ministry of Consumer Affairs here) but lacks warning labels and therefore also does not demonstrate the high degree of social responsibility required of such advertisements.
It took quite some time for me to hear back from the ASA. My complaint was accepted on the 11th of December 2012 to be put before the Advertising Standards Complaints Board (ASCB), but I did not received the full details of the decision until the 12th of February.
The advertiser’s initial response to my complaint was not to change the content of the advertisement. Instead, they changed the page to show the product as being “SOLD OUT” and said my concerns are dealt with on the supplier’s website. Their entire response has been included at the bottom of this post.
Amazingly, the ASCB considered this action to be sufficient to consider the complaint to be settled and not bother to uphold it or ask them to remove the advertisement or the unsubstantiated claims contained within it. I was quick to see that this precedent provided a massive loophole through which advertisers could make whatever therapeutic claims they want (so long as they don’t draw too much attention to themselves) while effectively escaping all regulation. I did all I could do in response to this decision: I appealed.
In my appeal I addressed both my concern with the poor precedent set by the decision and the claims made by the advertiser that the supplier’s website addressed my concerns. The website did partially address my safety concerns, but not enough to justify a lack of safety warnings. However, their attempt to address my claims as to efficacy and plausibility were laughable, and I reveled in the opportunity to use that wonderful word “quackery” in my appeal. You can see my appeal in its entirety at the bottom of this post.
After making my appeal on the 13th of February 2013, I checked the advertisement daily. On the 18th, it still appeared unchanged, but on the 19th the page was removed entirely. Soon after this, on the 21st, I heard back from the ASA that my appeal had been declined. Although the complaint’s decision is now listed on their website, I have received no more information regarding my appeal, and it is not mentioned alongside the complaint on their website.
I have set up a Google Alert so that if U-GO ever lists amber teething necklaces on their website again, I’ll know about it as soon as Google does. I also hope to use this complaint as precedent to have other similar advertisements removed. I’d hope to be able to have such complaints upheld without having to wait over 2 months for a decision on each complaint, but as this complaint was settled and not upheld I don’t know whether or not the ASCB will treat it as setting a strong precedent.
I encourage anyone else reading this to do the same if you ever see an advertisement for amber teething necklaces in New Zealand (or elsewhere, it’s just that this precedent is specific to New Zealand). For reference, the complaint’s identifier is 12/611.
Here is the content of my appeal:
I would like to appeal the decision of complaint 12/611 on the basis that it is in the interests of natural justice that the matter be reheard.
While I appreciate that the advertiser apologised for the advertisement, the primary concern is that the therapeutic claims made in the advertisement are unsubstantiated and this still has not changed. If the advertiser is willing to admit that “had I seen this advertisement on our website I would have changed it immediately” then I expect they would not be opposed to changing it immediately now that it has been drawn to their attention.
I also appreciate the advertiser’s obvious wish to comply with the ASA’s standards, presumably as they have no wish to mislead consumers. However, leaving the advertisement unchanged until the product is made available again does nothing to address the concerns with unsubstantiated therapeutic claims. If they wish to make the product unavailable for any duration then that’s their prerogative, but regardless they should also remove the unsubstantiated therapeutic claims made about it.
The advertisement about which the complaint was made has not been altered or removed. This means that the unsubstantiated therapeutic claims made in the advertisement remain published and continue to potentially mislead consumers.
That the product being advertised is currently listed as “SOLD OUT” should have no effect on the decision made about this complaint. The issue at the heart of the complaint is the content of the advertisement, not the availability of the product. As that has not changed, the complaint should not be considered to be settled, in the same manner as a complaint made about the content of an advertisement for a product temporarily listed as “SOLD OUT” should not be dismissed as having no grounds to proceed.
If the content of the advertisement is to be changed in the future to comply with the ASA’s codes in that it will only make therapeutic claims if they have been substantiated then that is good, but in the meantime the unsubstantiated claims made in the current advertisement should not remain published. In lieu of being changed, the advertisement should be taken down so as not to mislead the public further.
By utilising the tactic used by U-GO in response to this complaint, it would be possible for any business to advertise a product with misleading information, potentially even intending to defraud consumers, but escape regulation by listing the product as “SOLD OUT” for as long as such content remains published. This does not prevent consumers from being misled by such an advertisement, and they may be influenced to return to purchase the same product when it becomes available again in the future, or to purchase an identical or similar product elsewhere. This behaviour does not exhibit the high standard of social responsibility required by the ASA’s Therapeutic Products Advertising Code principle 3.
As written in the ASA’s constitution, the primary object of the ASA is:
“To seek to maintain at all times proper and generally acceptible standards in advertising and any other activity regulated by the Code of Practice” (emphasis mine).
Providing advertisers with a loophole such as this that they might be permitted be publish misleading and unacceptable advertisements free of industry regulation goes counter to this goal.
With regard to the advertiser’s claim that “The complaints raised by M. Hanna regarding strangulation and succinic acid are explained on the suppliers [sic] website”, upon reading the pages provided by the advertiser I am unconvinced. While my safety concerns are dealt with to a small degree (despite existing safeguards a warning would still be pertinent) the issues of substantiation and the plausibility of the succinic acid hypothesis are not.
I realise that, not being a New Zealand website, the content of the Amberizon website does not fall under the ASA’s jurisdiction, but for completeness’ sake I will discuss this here.
On the “Healing properties of amber” page (http://www.amberizon.com/page/healing_properties_of_amber_healing_gemstone.html), the following is stated:
“Amber is a powerful chakra cleanser and healer. At a physical level, is [sic] imbues the body with vitality and has the power to draw disease out of the body. By absorbing pain and negative energy, amber allows the body to rebalance and heal itself. Amber alleviates stress.
Amber provides decisiveness. It strengthens your memory and intellect and helps with emotional calming and centering. It is an excellent grounding crystal, and transmutes negative energy to positive. Amber radiates a warm and bright energy.”
The vast majority of this content is meaningless pseudoscience. For example, there is no high-quality scientific evidence that “chackras” exist at all, let alone that they are relevant to health and can be affected by objects such as this.
“is [sic] imbues the body with vitality and has the power to draw disease out of the body” is similarly nebulous pseudoscientific nonsense, lacking both credibility and substantiation.
“By absorbing pain and negative energy” again is utter nonsense. Pain is not some substance that can be absorbed, and the phrase “negative energy” is inappropriate and, in this context, undefined.
I hope that it is absolutely clear to everyone that the second paragraph quoted above contains absolutely no sense or science. In fact this looks like a brilliant example of quackery, in which pseudoscientific nonsense is used to peddle a probably useless product. Although I am happy to note that U-GO has not quoted any of this nonsense in their own advertisement, that it considers this group “experts for this product” is concerning, to say the least.
That page also has this to say about amber teething necklaces:
“Wearing baltic amber close to the skin is a traditional European remedy for baby teething. A natural analgesic, amber will help calm a baby without resorting to drugs. Used for centuries in Europe, amber’s natural anti-inflamitory [sic] and pain relieving properties are perfect to soothe teething babies. Amber is fossilized resin, which warms against the skin, releasing it’s [sic]theraputic [sic] properties safely and naturally.”
This paragraph is practically identical to the one currently used by U-GO in their advertisement, which I have already discussed in my original complaint.
The “Baby Teething Necklaces” page (http://www.amberizon.com/shop/amber_teething_necklaces_baby_teething_necklace_teething_beads_babies.html) says this:
“As a safety feature there is a knot before and after each bead, so that even in the extremely unlikely event of the string being torn, no beads are lost and there is no risk of choking. Amber teething necklaces are secured with a traditional screw clasp, not a hook and ring!”
I am glad to hear that the products have these safeguards in place, but I also feel it is important to note that they do not entirely negate the significant risks of choking and strangulation. It would be pertinent to include a similar warning to the one issued by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs about amber teething necklaces (http://www.consumeraffairs.govt.nz/for-consumers/goods/product-safety/keeping-kids-safe/amber-teething-necklace), namely that infants should be supervised at all times while wearing these necklaces.
It also seems relevant to point out that a consumer has previously complained about these necklaces (purchased from Amberizon) citing safety concerns despite the website’s reassurances after testing the necklaces themselves: http://www.scambook.com/report/view/36179/Amberizon-Complaint-36179-for-$113.15
It seems relevant that the Therapeutic Products Advertising Code part B2 requirement 2(a) specifies that:
“If the medical device has… specific warnings that may affect the safe use of the device… an appropriate warning must be given.”
I have not been able to find any information on those 2 pages of the Amberizon website that respond to my complaints regarding the succinic acid hypothesis. Since originally making this complaint and researching the issue further, I have uncovered several more serious issues with this hypothesis that I have not seen dealt with and would be happy to detail if necessary.
After submitting my appeal, I was asked to clarify the “supplementary material” included in my appeal application. They seemed satisfied when I told them I was responding to the claims made by the advertiser in their response to my complaint, and that the information I discussed was found by following the links provided by the advertiser in their response.
I also sent them information regarding the recent decision by the UK’s ASA on another advertisement for amber teething necklaces, which was passed on to me by Autismum:
I thought it might be worth mentioning that new evidence relating to complaint 12/611 has been brought to my attention in the form of advice published by the UK’s Committee of Advertising Practice in response to a complaint upheld against an advertisement similar to the one in this complaint. I realise that regulation in the UK is not identical to here in New Zealand, but the information still seems relevant.
This advice can be found published online at this location: http://www.cap.org.uk/Advice-Training-on-the-rules/Advice-Online-Database/Amber-Jewellery.aspx
After arriving home after this post was published and checking the mail, I now have the details of why my appeal was declined. I’m not sure why this information was not emailed to me, but at least I have it now.
The ASA ask that the details of their decision not be released publicly until after they’ve released them publicly themselves, so I’ll publish a follow-up post with this information once that has happened, on the 4th of March.