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.
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.