Equazen and the ASA – Again

Zombie Fish

Visiting Professor Patrick Holford is Head of Science and Education at Biocare and has an unerring sense for his endorsements (see, e.g., the qLink with the unconnected coil and the dLan that may enhance your exposure to EMR and YorkTest, source of the IgG food intolerance tests criticised by both the House of Lords and the ASA). Holford managed to procure some useful backing for the Food for the Brain project. One of the companies is Equazen. Equazen donated essential fat supplements to school projects. With an astonishing sense of inevitability, although the ASA criticised Equazen in 2007 for being unable to substantiate some of its advertising claims, it has just issued an adjudication against more unjustified claims by Equazen, this time for indirectly implying that fish oils are a treatment for ADHD.

In an interesting inversion, in Equazen’s previous contretemps with the ASA, they, like YorkTest before them, attempted to refute the challenges made to their claims by citing papers that described research studies that could not support the standard of proof that was needed to support its optimistic interpretation of the research findings or their generalisability to the wider population: this time, they included those particular papers in their advertising and argued to the ASA that they had used them to illustrate that

the studies had been carried out on children with DCD and ADHD. The ad did not, therefore, refer to a general population of children and could not mislead in this regard. [Response 1: ASA adjudication]

The advertisement in question was described thus:

A national press ad for eye q, an omega-3 and omega-6 supplement from Equazen, was headed, in chalk written on a blackboard, “PAY ATTENTION!” Further text superimposed onto the board stated “What will you choose for your child?”. The ad included a pack shot of eye q capsules and eye q chews; both included the text “Independently tested The Durham Trial Naturally-sourced Omega-3 & Omega-6 oils”. The capsules pack stated “5 years +” and the chews pack stated “3 years +”. Text in a ticked list stated “Independently tested* Naturally-sourced omega-3 & omega-6 No aspartame No hydrogenated fats No artificial colours”. The asterisk was linked to small print text that stated “*Richardson, A.J & Montgomery, P (2005). The Oxford Durham Study: A Randomized, Controlled Trial of Dietary Supplementation with Fatty Acids in Children with Development Co-ordination Disorder. Pediatrics, 115, 1360-1366 *Sinn, N. & Bryan, J (2007). Effect of supplementation with polyunsaturated fatty acids and micronutrients on Learning and Behaviour problems Associated with Child ADHD. Journal of Development & Behavioral Pediatrics, 28, 82 – 91

HolfordWatch recalls that advert, the word attention seemed to demand association with learning and behaviour: in concert with the surrounding media coverage, it seemed reasonable to assume that the Eye-Q would have a positive affect on most children’s ability to focus, alongside particular benefits for children with specific conditions. However, it seems that that is not what Equazen had in mind at all and that they were shocked to find gambling going on in here that people might have made such an interpretation.

Equazen explained that the phrase “PAY ATTENTION” was intended to catch the attention of readers as they scanned the publication in which the ad featured. It was not used in isolation, but was immediately followed by the text “What will you choose for your child?” and a photograph of eye-q capsules and chews. They said the essence of the ad was to draw attention, without disparaging competitor products, that eye-q products were naturally sourced, independently tested and without aspartame, hydrogenated fats or artificial colours.

They said they had included information about the specific groups of children who had participated in the eye-q trials to avoid any possible confusion or implication that the ad’s claims referred to a general population. They believed, however, the ad did not discourage essential treatment. They argued that, although a food supplement could be useful to a specific group, that did not suggest that that group should no longer use their prescribed medication. They said the ad did not make medicinal claims in relation to any condition; it merely clarified that the product was tested on specific groups rather than a general population of children.

Equazen agreed that ADHD was a serious medical condition and believed sufferers and carers of children with ADHD knew to seek medical diagnosis and treatment regimes rather than to rely on food supplements. [Response 2: ASA adjudication]

This seems a trifle disingenuous when one considers some of the presentations at the recent Food For the Brain conference, for which Equazen was one of the sponsors, and which did discuss approaches to managing ADHD and similar conditions through food supplementation and techniques other than standard treatment regimes. And, again, Equazen is associated with self-styled ‘leading critics’ of standard medical interventions, people who argue that Food Is Better Medicine than Drugs, where the food should be interpreted as supplementation.

We might have felt abashed at failing the reading comprehension and advertisement interpretation test that Equazen had run in the media were it not that the ASA seems to have had the same response to the advertising.

We considered, however, that readers were likely to infer from the headline “PAY ATTENTION!”, written in chalk on a schoolroom type blackboard, in conjunction with the claim “What will you choose for your child?”, that the ad was aimed at parents of children in general and that the product could help to improve the attention levels of all children, not any particular group. We acknowledged that the claim “Independently tested” provided a link to small-print which clarified that specific groups of children had participated in the testing, but considered that this information contradicted and rendered ambiguous, rather than clarified, the implication given by the body copy of the ad. Although we appreciated that it was not the message Equazen had intended to convey, we concluded that the ad was likely to mislead about the likely benefit children in general could achieve from the intake of eye-q capsules or chews. [Emphasis added: Assessment 1: ASA adjudication]

Similarly, it seems that the ASA thought that more people than themselves might have been led to conclude that fish oils had a substantial and validated role in the management of children with specific disorders.

We were concerned that the headline claim “PAY ATTENTION!” in conjunction with the claim “Independently tested”, which clarified that the product had been trialled on children with a serious medical condition, indirectly implied a solution for the treatment of ADHD by way of improving the attention capabilities of those children

We recognised that the intention of Equazen was not to convey that eye-q provided a treatment for ADHD and appreciated their opinion that they would expect sufferers of ADHD and their parents or carers to seek medical diagnosis and treatment with an explicitly stated effect on that condition. We concluded, however, that the ad had indirectly offered a treatment for a serious condition and was, therefore, in breach of the CAP Code. [Emphasis added: Assessment 2: ASA adjudication]

No cynicism there, just a “more in sorrow than in anger” reproof from a teacher to a student who is taking a long time to grasp some basic principles. After all, Equazen copy writers might have saved some space and headed off any confusion if they had footnoted:

There is some conflicting evidence from a small number of clinical studies that fish oil supplements might be useful for some children with specific developmental disorders, however, there is no indication that this would apply to most other children. Further details are available from our helpline.

Both Education Watch and Letting off steam have covered the story of a PR firm that is encouraging schools to improve their results by leveraging the Hawthorne Effect. The company suggests that schools should get involved in any experiment that would raise their profile, citing the fish-oil trials initiatives as an example a meaningless “experiment”.

It will be interesting to see Equazen’s next crop of advertisements and ASA adjudications: there are no penalties attached to these adjudications so there is little incentive to run the sort of demographically-sampled focus group testing that might uncover such misunderstandings before the adverts are run. As we write this blog entry, there is no coverage of the ASA ruling in the mainstream media, so there isn’t any impact on the integrity of the Equazen brand.

James Bainbridge has posted several poems and reflections on advertising by Tessimond and Orwell. They are worth reading but this (from Tessimond’s The Ad Man) seems particularly germane:

He hunts for ever-newer, smarter ways
To make the gilt seem gold; the shoddy, silk;
To cheat us legally; to bluff and bilk
By methods which no jury can prevent
Because the law’s not broken, only bent.

Updates

12:30. jdc comments that Equazen need to pay closer attention – to advertising guidelines.

13:30 Changed the Tessimond quotation to one from The Ad-Man rather than Defence of the ad-man.

Notes

Our thanks to toastmonster for her permission to use the wonderful zombie fish picture.

BPSDB

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15 Comments

Filed under children, Food for the brain, patrick holford, supplements

15 responses to “Equazen and the ASA – Again

  1. “there are no penalties attached to these adjudications ”

    quite. Until the ASA has the power to fine companies that regularly breach their CAP, and/or ban said company from advertising a given product full stop (as opposed to ban a specific ad, boo hoo they’ll just come up with another ad designed to circumvent that specific ruling…), companies like Equazen will keep churning out deliberately mis-leading ads to reel in customers.

  2. Excellent post. Can I please ask what this means though: “shocked to find gambling going on in here” (feels like a cultural reference I’ve perhaps missed)?

  3. Wulfstan

    I know that one. Casablanca – isn’t it?

    The last mention I can find for Equazen is the Daily Mail – where some pharmacist with a speciality in ‘natural remedies’ recommends Equazen as part of a costly supplement regime. It’s all very even-handed as the supplements are from various companies although all are stocked (fortunately) by Victoria Health.

    Victoria Health – hang on, haven’t they popped up on the Bad Science radar on previous occasions?

  4. Wouldn’t it be sensible for all health product adverts, (maybe all adverts) have to be passed by a regulatory BEFORE they go public?

    Otherwise companies making false or misleading claims can run the ads, reap the benefits and, assuming someone complains and and ASA adjudication is made, then – much later – withdraw (or modify) them. Which they probably would have done by that point anyway.

    The system seems the wrong way around – especially given that no fines can be applied.

    ridiculous.

    Now of I was prime minister etc. blah blah

  5. “Wouldn’t it be sensible for all health product adverts, (maybe all adverts) have to be passed by a regulatory BEFORE they go public?”

    Fair point Steve. I assume that it would be extremely difficult to manage a requirement that all ads be ‘passed’ before being shown (based on the number of ads that appear – it would take a helluva lot in terms of the time that would have to be spent going through *all* ads). It would probably be far easier logistically to allow adverts to screen, but with the advertiser aware that if his ad breached the code they would suffer a sufficiently heavy fine (i.e., one that would make it ‘not-worth-their-while’ to screen dodgy ads). I think either would be an improvement on the current situation.

    Wulfstan: thanks!

  6. gimpy

    Wouldn’t it be sensible for all health product adverts, (maybe all adverts) have to be passed by a regulatory BEFORE they go public?

    Well that would be an argument for censorship and would be a mildly totalitarian move. Personally I’d like to see harsher penalties for breaches, financially punitive ones. That way you would give people the option of choosing to break the law rather than moderating their intentions before they act.

  7. Casablanca:
    Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
    Captain Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
    [a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
    Croupier: Your winnings, sir.
    Captain Renault: [sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much.
    [aloud]
    Captain Renault: Everybody out at once!

    ——–

    If there were fines, there would probably be an entirely new section devoted to calculating the fines because they should be stepped and reflect the size of the company (and gravity of the offence). But, that would make it rather expensive to administer and probably cost more than it is worth (judging by some quangos, govt. depts. etc.).

    The staff of the ASA are probably very frustrated – I wonder if they consider this the best of all possible workable systems or if they have some ideas for ensuring compliance with the standards that are just not seeing the light of day.

    Victoria Health – the names don’t go away, do they?

  8. It’s not censorship or totalitarian – just a sensible regulatory response to an out of control, socially damaging industry with history of serial abuse and exploitation. I have zero sympathy for the ad industry – they are professional bullshitters one and all – perfecting the art of selling crap to idiots. Voluntary codes, industry regulation etc – no longer credible IMHO. These are people obsessed with profit over any and all other considerations.

    looking into it, apparently broadcast ads do have to be cleared already (although recommendations are non binding) and print output can require vetting if they get hit by the ASA few times.

    It all needs to be far stricter of course – and have legal teeth including power to levy fines and prosecutions

  9. How about a bullshit logo? Following a ‘guilty verdict’, offending advertisers could be forced to use a bright red, bold, capitalised font (with a minimum point size) consisting simply of the word “bullshitters” – on each future ad they run.

  10. gimpy

    jdc325, interesting idea. I’ve long thought that newspaper corrections should be given the same prominence as the original erroneous claim, so why not apply that logical to advertising?

  11. At last

    Last night on the World Service news it has finally been acknowledged that Britain’s agricultural soil IS deficient in nutrients due to modern ‘inadequate’ chemical farming practice.

    Therefore it is possible to assume that foods derived from that soil are also deficient in vital vitamins and minerals.

    I was making this argument a few months ago and one of you baffoons were pretty scathing about it

    So in the words of the infamous Bart

    eat my shorts hehe

  12. Lateral- do you have a reference for this? Where was the research published, and where were they analysing the soil?

    Not to mention, of course, that deficient soil does not necessarily equate to deficient diets: for example, we have easy access to a lot of fresh fruit and veg, so a healthy diet may still be more than adequate.

  13. Deficient soil does equate to deficient diets where do you thing the nutrients in the foods come from in the first place. We are not just talking fruit and vegetables here – meat, milk, eggs, grain and everything that is fed on that grain. Ever hear of the food chain?

    Should find a ref and more info on the World service website, some basic research should put you straight on this issue.

  14. So – you’re saying, “No, I can’t provide a reference” then, Lateral. Par for the course, sadly.

  15. Pingback: The Advertising Standards Authority May Be Closing Some Loopholes: About Time « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science

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