ASA Complaints: Punga Tails, Magic Bracelets, and Bad Appeals
2 days ago, the Advertising Standards Authority published 4 more decisions regarding complaints I’d made. Each of these decisions was focused on a different type of product, but they were all therapeutic products. The decisions released were:
- 13/177 Amber Teething Beads – Punga TailsSettled
- 13/180 Energy Bracelet – 6ShooterSettled
- 13/190 Mohdoh – Punga TailsSettled
- 13/011 Infrared Sauna – Innate HealthAppeal dismissed; complaint upheld
Punga Tails is a New Zealand business that, as far as I can tell, is owned and operated by naturopath Lydia Dorotich. It sells products for infants and has a focus on therapeutic products, including Baltic amber teething necklaces.
Mrs Dorotich has made various public statements claiming that Baltic amber can relieve teething, and that she personally recommends them. For example, from one of her listings on Trade Me:
As a qualified Naturopath and Medical herbalist (see my profile), I highly recommend the use of Baltic Amber for teething babies. Many parents have found that by wearing a Baltic Amber teething necklace the symptoms of teething have reduced.
On a Grabone deal some months ago, a customer stated that she was “a little unsure what these are for”. Given that Grabone generally tries very hard to avoid therapeutic claims and had not mentioned any in this deal (although the listing was for “Authentic Baltic Amber Teething Beads”), that confusion can be understood. In response, Lydia posted this:
Amber teething necklaces are to be worn against the skin. When amber is worn against the skin the benefits from the amber are absorbed into the skin and help to soothe the pain and inflammation caused by teething. They reduce drooling, red cheeks, nappy rash, swollen gums, low-grade fevers and sleeping problems associated with teething.
I have already thoroughly dealt with claims such as these in my previous post on amber teething necklaces. If you’re interested in why claims such as these are completely implausible, have a read of that post. Of course, even if these claims were plausible, it would still not be reasonable to believe them given that they are entirely unsupported by evidence.
Although both of these advertisements were in blatant violation of the Advertising Standards Authority’s Therapeutic Products Advertising Code, in that they made unsubstantiated therapeutic claims, they are not the advertisements I have complained about. Instead, I complained about the advertisements on the Punga Tails website itself.
There are various advertisements on the Punga Tails website, and they all link back to the Baltic amber FAQs page. It is on this page that most of the therapeutic claims were made. Here are some of the claims from that page that I highlighted in my complaint:
- “The therapeutic effects of Baltic amber come from the succinic acid contained in it.”
- “Baltic amber warms against the skin, releasing it’s therapeutic properties safely and naturally.”
- “The therapeutic properties of Baltic amber include analgesic, calmative, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, expectorant, and febrifuge (reduces fever).”
- “[Baltic amber teething necklaces] can boost the immune system and ease many ailments such as eczema, fatigue, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome, migraines, psoriasis, menstrual cramping, pain, all types of arthritis, reduces stress, anxiety and depression.”
- “Baltic amber is a natural analgesic so is ideal for pain relief with no side effects!”
- “[Hazelwood] will help with the teething just as well.”
A couple of other pages on the site also made therapeutic claims regarding these products, such as:
Baltic amber is a natural way to reduce pain & inflammation WITH NO SIDE EFFECTS!
In response to my complaint, Punga Tails changed a lot of the content on their advertisements for Baltic amber teething necklaces. All of the claims that were not on the FAQs page seem to have been removed, and the FAQs page itself had quite a content overhaul. In light of this, the chairman of the ASA decided that the complaint should be considered settled.
When a complaint is settled that means the chairman has decided that as a result of the advertiser’s self-regulatory action “it would serve no further purpose to place the matter before the Complaints Board.”
Disappointingly, the FAQs page is still misleading on the subject of amber teething necklaces. The therapeutic claims it still contains are no longer as explicit, but they are still clearly there. They have generally been changed to claims about what is commonly believed, and references to its “effectiveness” remain. For example:
Succinic acid is the component of amber that is believed to contribute to the beneficial effects on teething.
This could explain why some amber teething necklaces are less effective.
Looking on the bright side for once, in the remnants of the FAQs page there is still one small part that I am mostly happy to see. One small piece of grudging honesty:
Because Baltic amber teething necklaces have not been scientifically proven we cannot make any claims as to their effectiveness.
I’ve uploaded my complaint and the details of the complaints board’s decision for you to read if you’re interested: 13/177 complaint and decision details
A friend on Facebook alerted me to this one. 6Shooter is a deals website, and they’d posted a deal for an “Health Nano Quantum Energy Bracelet/ Wristband”. Given the name of this product, you might not be surprised to hear that it can basically turn you into a superhero. Here are some of the unsubstantiated therapeutic claims I listed in my complaint:
- “It will transmit nutrients and oxygen to cell and expel toxin in our body,people wont have feel cold with hand and feet any more”
- “It will provide energy to blood corpuscle and lower viscosity,then reduce the chance to get cardiovascular disease,heart disease and wind-stroke”
- “Strengthen human body BIO energy field to prevent harmful electromagnetic wave.”
- “Protect us from electromagnetic waves from computer, mobile phone, electrical appliance, telecommunications and so on,recover our body with balance and coordination.”
- “Stabilize oxygen supply in blood, activate blood corpuscle”
- “Provide relief from allergies and respiratory related illnesses.”
- “Normalize hormonal imbalances.”
I also brought up the fact that the advertisement misused a lot of scientific terms. This was relevant to my complaint as the Therapeutic Products Advertising Code requires that:
Scientific terminology must be appropriate, clearly communicated and able to be readily understood by the audience to whom it is directed.
I explained that the product name misused the terms “nano”, “quantum”, and “energy”. It seems quite clear that whoever is trying to sell these bracelets has simply put some sciencey-sounding words in the name to help convince their target audience: innocent people who simply don’t know any better.
The advertisement also refered to a “human body BIO energy field”, yet there is no such thing as far as we’ve ever been able to detect. Finally, I referred the following as “an example of gratuitous use of pseudoscience”:
Negative ion is the basic element to maintain good health.It can neutralize oxidized substance,such as cells.So the cells are revived and improved the immunity of human body.
I also mentioned that the claim that the product would offer protection from “electromagnetic waves from computer, mobile phone, electrical appliance, telecommunications and so on” constituted playing on consumers’ fair without justifiable reason, since there is no evidence to suggest that such electromagnetic radiation is harmful to humans.
This complaint was settled, after the advertiser responded by permanently removing the product from their stock. They also stated that they never intended to mislead consumers.
I think this case is a good example of why it is important to support science information and to point out pseudoscience for what it is. There are many products such as these which rely on people’s ignorance in order to convince them by sounding like science without having any of the actual substance. If more people can be educated in how to tell the difference between science and pseudoscience, scammers like the people who make and sell these bracelets will have less of a chance for success.
I’ve uploaded my complaint and the details of the complaints board’s decision for you to read if you’re interested: 13/180 complaint and decision details
After submitting my complaint about their amber teething necklaces, I found this product as well on the Punga Tails website. It’s basically smelly playdough, which is claimed to provide certain specific health benefits via aromatherapy and colour therapy. I submitted a complaint about this not so much because I was worried about health fraud, since this product appears to be harmless in that aspect, but because I also feel committed to fighting pseudoscience.
Similar to their amber teething necklaces advertisements, the majority of claims here were on an FAQs page. The misleading information here mostly related to aromatherapy and colour therapy, instead of being specific to the products being advertised, although there were a few specific claims as well. Here are a couple of the most egregious pseudoscience that were on that page:
- “Colour therapy is a holistic and non-intrusive form of healing, which introduces the optimum balance of colour energies into the human organism in order to promote harmony between the body, mind and spirit.”
- “If our energy centres (Chakras) become blocked or depleted, then our body cannot function properly and this, in turn, can lead to a variety of problems.”
The products also used to have specific indications. Bizarrely, even though they appeared to be marketed toward infants (including being in the “Babies Natural Care” section), one of the products was given the following indication:
Helps you quit smoking
This complaint was settled, after the advertiser removed most of the pseudoscience and therapeutic claims from the page. I was happy to see the introduction of the following disclaimers:
While Aromatherapy is not scientifically proven…
Colour therapy is not a scientifically proven therapy.
I’ve uploaded my complaint and the details of the complaints board’s decision for you to read if you’re interested: 13/190 complaint and decision details
Recently, I wrote about 3 complaints against Innate Health. One of these complaints, number 13/011, was about an advertisement in Coffee News for an infrared sauna that made various unsubstantiated therapeutic claims, and bizarrely stated that the product could:
Activate every cell in your body to increase your sense of well-being
The complaint was originally upheld on the 18th of March. On the 9th of May, I received a notice from the ASA saying that an appeal that had been submitted on this complaint had been accepted. This doesn’t mean the complaint had been successfully upheld, it just means that the appeal will be heard by the complaints board and they would then decide whether or not their decision should be changed. I was contacted because, as the complainant, I was to be given an opportunity to respond to this appeal.
The appeal claimed to present new evidence, and was basically just one really long citation of a bad review. I got the impression that Barbara Good Hammond, owner of Innate Health, came across this article some time after the complaint was upheld and thought she saw an opportunity to have the decision changed.
The article in question is a review published in Alternative Medicine Review in 2011, entitled Sauna as a Valuable Clinical Tool for Cardiovascular, Autoimmune, Toxicant-induced and other Chronic Health Problems. It was written by a naturopath called Walter Crinnion.
The article was a (non-systematic) review of the evidence regarding saunas as a therapeutic intervention. It seemed to rely very heavily on pilot studies and unpublished research, and seemed to be a rather unreliable source.
In the original complaint, the complaints board decided that “Activate every cell in your body” could be considered puffery. This means that it is obviously meant to be a ridiculous exaggeration and would not be taken seriously by anyone, so does not require substantiation. As part of the appeal, the advertiser disagreed with this analysis, claiming that the statement is not puffery and could be substantiated. They then proceeded to attempt to substantiate the claim:
With the whole body being effected [sic] during therapy, circulation is enhanced to every cell. The modality of Far Infrared sauna therapy has been substantiated world wide [sic] for improving cardia-vascular [sic] function, and with the heart being directly responsible for pumping and circulating blood to every cell in the body (as reported in Anatomy & Physiology books and being general knowledge) this would have a direct impact to increase the bodies [sic] sense of well-being, as proven and shown in published clinical studies worldwide.
She then went on to quote a paragraph from Crinnion’s review that seemed to be pretty much irrelevant to the claim, then declared that the statement “is legitimate and should not be considered puffery”.
This appears to be the one thing on which both Ms Hammond and I can agree: that statement should not be considered puffery. Bizarrely, even though the advertiser specifically said the statement is not puffery the complaints board reiterated their previous decision on this statement, saying that it should be considered puffery and therefore doesn’t need to be substantiated.
The rest of the text of the appeal is fairly benign and unconvincing, but there are 38 references listed at the end of it. At first, I thought that seemed pretty intimidating. However, after a minute or so I noticed that they were copied and pasted directly from the review, including spelling mistakes and formatting errors. Worse than that, many of them were duplicates, and there were actually only 25 unique references.
I got the distinct impression that Barbara Good Hammond didn’t even attempt to find these references to look at them herself. I’m not sure how else I can explain the fact that she cited the same piece of unpublished research 3 separate times. Nonetheless, with the help of a contact at the University of Auckland, I was able to get my hands on the full text of 12 of the references, and the abstracts of a further 6 references.
I went through each reference one by one, and found them all to be either irrelevant or inadequate substantiation for the claims made in Innate Health’s advertisement. In their decision, the complaint board seemed to agree with me, stating that:
Turning to the Advertiser’s evidence, the Complaints Board considered the Advertiser had not adequately substantiated the claims. It noted that one research authority was a naturopath, not a doctor or scientist, and the saunas about which the research was done were not infra red saunas but Finnish saunas. While the Complaints Board noted the research said there may be some merit in using Finnish saunas, this did not reach the threshold to validate the very strong claims in the advertisement, particular [sic] as that research discussed a different type of sauna.
If you’re interested, you can read the entire appeal application and my response: Complaint 13/011: appeal 13/013, response to appeal, and decision details