On the 3rd of January 2013, I picked up a copy of the Whangarei edition of Coffee News. This is a weekly publication that has different editions for various areas of New Zealand, and seems to contain a relatively high proportion of questionable advertising. I make a habit of looking at it whenever I get the chance, in case I find something I should complain about. In this case, I found what I was looking for.
I wasn’t familiar yet with the product being advertised, but the claims sounded too good to be true so I thought it certainly warranted further investigation.
Once I got back to my computer, I looked up the Innate Health website. There I found other advertisements like the one I’d seen in Coffee News. There was one advertisement for an “Ionic Detox Foot Spa” (scroll down on that page), and another for a “Quantum Magnetic Analyser Report“.
Both of these advertisements were concerning. Fraudulent “detox foot spas” and similar pads, which change colour and appear to gunk up after placing your feet in them and are claimed that they’re removing “toxins” are nothing new. There are a few varieties, but they have essentially been shown to be fake:
As for their “Quantum Magnetic Analyser Report”, the way they described it didn’t even sound superficially plausible, and the spattering of pseudoscientific language didn’t particularly help their case. The product seems to be a hand grip connected to a computer, and allegedly when you hold onto the grip the computer will tell you what’s wrong with you.
So far, I have laid 3 complaints against Innate Health with the ASA.
Ionic Detox Foot Spa – Complaint 13/010
Innate Health made a lot of claims about what their foot spa could help with:
- Joint Pain, Arthritis
- Chronic Fatigue
- Foggy Brain, Poor Concentration
- Poor Circulation
- Heavy Metal Toxicity
- Eczema, Psoriasis
- Hormonal Imbalance
- Low Sex Drive
- Weak Immune System
- Cellular Acidosis (Ph [sic] is too high)
There was absolutely no attempt made to substantiate any of these claims, making them in violation of the Therapeutic Products Advertising Code Principle 2.
The advertisement also used scientific terminology in an inappropriate way, attempting to take advantage of consumers’ lack of knowledge by talking about such sciencey sounding things as
balancing the body’s natural energy system
utilizing principles of reflexology and the science of ionization and osmosis, create a positive cellular environment
Because these statements used scientific terminology in an inappropriate way, I considered them to be in violation of the Therapeutic Products Advertising Code Part B2 R4.3. I also considered them to be in violation of Part B2 Requirement 4(a) and 4(b), because they abused consumers’ lack on knowledge in order to deceive them.
I also argued that the advertisement violated Principle 3 of the Therapeutic Products Advertising Code, which requires that advertisements such as this exhibit a high standard of social responsibility.
In response to the complaint, the Innate Health representative seemed to think that it was sufficient to explain to the ASCB that anyone wanting to buy their products could just search on Google for the product name and research it themselves. Instead of attempting to substantiate their claims they just told the ASCB how many results Google said it found when they searched for their product name. I have no idea why they thought this was a good idea, especially given that the ASA’s website has information available on how to respond to a complaint regarding misleading claims, but I guess that’s just what they decided to do.
In complaints like this the onus is always on the advertiser to substantiate their claims. As they had failed to do so convincingly, the ASCB upheld the complaint and ruled that the advertisement be removed.
However, this complaint was a bit more interesting than that. Innate Health had actually already removed the advertisement from their website before the ASCB met to make a decision about the complaint. Normally, at least in my experience, this would result in a complaint being considered settled. However, the ASCB did something for which I commend them in this case:
The Complaints Board noted the advertisement for this product had been removed from the Advertiser’s website, but considered it was in the public interest the issues raised by the Complainant be addressed.
I hope that this precedent may be useful in future complaints that involve advertisements with a short lifespan, such as GrabOne deals, which may be removed before the ASCB is able to meet and potentially uphold a complaint against them. If you would like to refer to this precedent in a complaint of your own, remember this is complaint 13/010.
I’ve uploaded the details of this decision, which includes my original complaint, for you to read: 13/010 Decision Details
METAbolic Infrared Sauna Chamber – Complaint 13/011
The advertisement in Coffee News was similar to Innate Health’s other advertisement, in that it made various unsubstantiated health claims and misused scientific terminology. The line in particular which grabbed my attention was:
Activate every cell in your body to increase your sense of well-being
Aside from that, various therapeutic claims were also made in the advertisement, without any attempt to substantiate them. Apparently the product will:
- Promote weight loss and burn calories
- Enhance metabolism, immune system and blood circulation
- Assists with removal of toxins, heavy metals, lactic/fatty acids
- Promote relaxation, reducing stiffness, pain and fatigue
Honestly, I don’t doubt that sitting in any sort of sauna, including an infrared one like this, could be relaxing. The other claims though, particularly the claim about helping remove heavy metals and other “toxins”, were quite concerning.
As always, before I made this complaint I searched to see what evidence I could find. I didn’t find much at the time, but I did manage to find a 2008 article from the LA times that quotes relevant experts saying that, as I’d expected, sweating is not a valid method of treating heavy metal toxicity. Here’s a link to the article: You sweat, but toxins likely stay
My complaint argued that the claim about “activating” your cells was an inappropriate use of scientific terminology, that the therapeutic claims made were unsubstantiated, and that it was highly irresponsible to imply that a serious condition like heavy metal poisoning could be treated in this way.
Like in the previous complaint, the Innate Health representative’s tactic involved searching for their product on Google and reporting the number of results, so the ASCB upheld the complaint.
Unfortunately, though, instead of agreeing with me that “Activate every cell in your body” was a misuse of scientific terminology, the ASCB decided it should be treated as “puffery”. As far as I understand, that basically means a claim that is exaggerated to the point of appearing so ridiculous that no one could possibly take it seriously, and therefore doesn’t require substantiation. I disagree with their decision here, but I got the result I was after overall.
I’ve uploaded the details of the ASCB’s decision, including my complaint, for you to read: 13/011 Decision Details
Quantum Magnetic Analyser Report – Complaint 13/012
I found this one very amusing. Here’s how the product was originally described in the advertisement:
Quantum Magnetic Analyzer collect the weak magnetic field sensors of frequency and energy from the human body through the hand grip sensor. The instrument magnifies your body functions and the computer processes the information collected and compares with the diseases on record which are installed inside the instrument and compares against the standard spectrum. According to the results, the therapist is able to make an analytic judgement for the person and put forward standard advice for any preventive treatment that may be required.
The complaint about this ad focused on similar points to the previous ones: its therapeutic claims are unsubstantiated, it’s socially irresponsible, and it’s taking advantage of consumers’ lack of knowledge.
You can probably guess how the Innate Health representative responded to this complaint. That’s right, they searched for their product on Google and told the ASCB how many results they got. In light of this, the complaint was upheld.
Despite this, and despite the fact that having a complaint upheld against you by the ASA means you are asked to remove the advertisement, Innate Health has not removed the advertisement. I have submitted a new complaint to the ASA regarding this.
I always make records of the original state of advertisements against which I complain so I can tell what, if anything, is changed. For online advertisements, I use this Chrome extension: Screen Capture (by Google). In this case, the important changes were that the latter half of the advertisement was changed, removing some unsubstantiated claims and adding a new one, and a disclaimer was added. I don’t really know how Innate Health could have decided this was an acceptable route for them to take, because the ASCB clearly stated this in their decision:
The Complaints Board said that even if there had been a disclaimer, that alone would not remove the responsibility to provide substantiation.
As always, I’ve uploaded the decision details and my complaint for you to read: 13/012 Decision Details