Comparative ads given the Bum's Rush

Two recent decisions by the UK Advertising Standards Authority provide useful pointers about the quality of substantiation that is required for advertising claims.

Lesson:  when building your files to substantiate claims, satisfy yourself that the substantiation relates directly to the claim being made – or alter your claim.

In the first decision, about a TV ad for Dyson’s purifier heater, the ad begins with a woman at the window of her home looking visibly concerned. The ad cuts to a car exhaust producing green vapour. The voice-over says: “what could be worse than the pollution outdoors?” The voice-over goes on to say “well, the pollution indoors can be up to 5 times worse where gases and microscopic particles can build up”. The camera follows the woman as she walks into the kitchen where a number of appliances set off purple and green vapour.  She is then shown holding a smart phone with an App stating “poor” in reference to the air quality in her home.

In response to challenges as to whether the ad’s claims were misleading and could be substantiated, Dyson provided support from a paper from the European Respiratory Journal, a study by the US Environmental Protection Agency, a copy of a report from US research institute SRI International, a report by the Royal College of Physicians and a study from 2014.

Nevertheless the complaint was upheld and the ASA took into account the following factors in coming to that conclusion:

·         using the same colours for indoor and outdoor fumes would be understood by consumers as making a comparison between car exhaust and indoor fumes

·         car exhaust is a familiar everyday pollutant known to have an effect on public health and the environment

·         the use of the word “worse” would be considered by consumers to refer to effects on public health or the environment

·         the look of concern on the female character’s face

·         the word “poor” on the phone screen

All of these factors, the ASA concluded, would lead consumers to believe that indoor pollutants were more damaging than outdoor pollutants.

The reports provided by Dyson only discussed the presence and types of indoor pollutants and did not state whether they were more damaging to health than outdoor pollutants.  Accordingly, the ad was found to be misleading.

In the second ad Slimspired advertised that its “miracle machine” was forcing it to keep longer hours in order to deal with the popularity of its new Summer Bum Lift. The machine featured “tri–lipo” technology which combines radiofrequency, muscle activation therapy and mechanical pressure.

A complainant challenged whether the claims that the product could reduce fat and aid weight loss were misleading and could be substantiated.

Slimspired provided, among other documents, one clinical trial.

The ASA considered that consumers would understand the ad to mean that tri-lipo treatment could reduce fat from various target areas of the body and aid in weight loss without the need to exercise. Accordingly, they looked for robust evidence, including clinical trials of the treatment on people, demonstrating the effectiveness of the treatment.

The ASA carefully reviewed the clinical trial provided by Slimspired which tested the device referred to in the ad. It was carried out on 25 female participants aged 24 to 55 years with at least moderate abdominal cellulite. The subjects underwent six weekly treatments using the device. The results indicated a significant reduction in abdominal circumference at one week and four weeks following the end of the treatment compared to baseline, as well as a significant reduction in abdominal subcutaneous fat thickness, as measured by ultrasound.

Notwithstanding the clinical trial results the ASA upheld the complaint for a number of reasons.

·         The trial was not double blinded or placebo controlled.

·         The sample size was relatively small.

·         There was no information on demographic characteristics that could influence the result. So, the ASA considered it was not possible to separate the effect of the device itself from that of other interventions participants might have undertaken.

·         The study only measured the effect of the treatment on the abdominal area while the ad made claims that consumers were likely to interpret as meaning that the device could reduce fat from other areas of the body.

Peter StubbsComment