In good health or not? – "natural health" advertising in newspapers, magazines

By Grant Jacobs 17/06/2010

Should newspapers take care to not place advertisements with dubious claims alongside sound medical advice?

My local paper is the Otago Daily Times. Today the ODT – as it is known locally – contained a supplement,* good health, which I think is let down by including advertising of some rather dodgy services and products.


Don’t get me wrong. I like the ODT. It’s easily one of the better papers. Overall the good health pull-out looks fine too; it’s a case of a few letting down the many.

As you read on, bear in mind that I’m interested the wider point the advertising in this feature raises, not this particular supplement, which I’m just using to illustrate my point.

The good health supplement is presented as a 12-page pull-out magazine with an A-Z series of short pieces on Asthma, Burns, Chilblains, Drug and alcohol addiction, … Yellow fever and Zoster (as in herpes zoster infection, or shingles).

A brief skim suggests that the short pieces look sound. A number cite sources, including WWW sites, and some encourage readers to visit registered practitioners: well done.

The presentation is so much that of an informative magazine that I didn’t notice the (not so small) ’small print’ that it was an advertising feature until after I spotted a few dubious advertisements and decided to look closer.

It would be nice to know who wrote the informative pieces. I presume these are by staff writers, or free-lancers contracted for this feature. Let’s assume it’s not the advertisers but by one means or other representatives of the Otago Daily Times.

Here’s my beef:** a few of the advertisements strike me as too dubious to be placed alongside the rest of the material, including the other advertisers. Including them undermines the credibility of the supplement.

To give you the general idea, there is:

  • A ‘certified colon therapist’ offering colon hydrotherapy. (Also known as colon cleansing’ or ‘colon therapy’.) See advice from the Mayo Clinic and Quackwatch. (Even a bodybuilder chips in!)
  • ’Auragraphs’ are offered by a person with a list of acronyms after their name: MMANF, BSVA (col), BVA. Auragraphs appear to be something akin to tarot reading, a sort of ’spirit art.’ As for the acronyms, I’m not having a lot of luck… BVA could be the British Veterinary Association, but if true it seems an odd thing to list. BSYA could be the British School of Yoga, which seem less of a yoga institute than a shop-front to a whole range of ‘natural health’ courses, including correspondence courses, some of which are Psychic Healing, ‘Earth Mysteries – Divining the Land’, Crystal Magic’ and so on.*** MMANF might mean ‘Master in Mantic Arts’. (Do let me know. Mantic means divination or prophecy.)
  • There is a ‘Cancer Clinic’; their advertisement includes these claims: ’Cleaning the aura energy from the outside of the physical body’ and ’Learning how to draw the purest and finest vibration back into your body.’ I suppose you could cut some slack and say that the advertisement at least doesn’t appear to be offering to treat the cancer, but that seems small comfort to me.
  • The same gentleman who offers assistance to cancer sufferers in another advertisement declares himself to be a Qigong Master Body Technician.’

My thought is that mixing sound and unsound practices in the advertising associated with a medical supplement isn’t helpful. It undermines the sound articles (and advertisers) and thence the newspaper itself, while potentially gifting some credibility to the unsound advertisers that isn’t warranted.

At best seems a discourtesy to the writers who prepared the A-Z pieces, who I’d like to think would feel uncomfortable at having these advertisements alongside their work. At the worst it promotes unsound practices – with all that comes with that – through placing them alongside sound advice.

I appreciate that newspapers make money from advertising. Fair enough. But isn’t there a point where inappropriate advertising lowers the standard of the paper and it’s content for readers?

So: is it good health for newspapers and magazines to place dubious advertising alongside more reputable articles? Does it undermine their publication?


There is a disclaimer inside the cover page of the supplement magazine, however it doesn’t distinguish the sound and unsound practitioners to my reading, e.g. ’The information provided is intended as being of general assistance to readers and does not replace the medical care, advice, diagnosis or treatment available from health professionals, many of whom have advertisements in this supplement.’ Both sound and unsound ’health professionals’ … ’have advertisements in this supplement.’

My initial thoughts are that registration of these businesses may help. (Advertising can then be limited to registered practitioners if newspapers which to maintain some sort of higher standard.) I personally would have liked the disclaimer to have been printed more clearly (it was quite difficult to read due in part to poor printing and choice of colours) and for it to explicitly warn people to seek advice only from practitioners whose claims are backed by sound research.

* The printed kind, not vitamins or minerals.

** I’m not sure if this expression travels well (the joys of writing for an international audience…), it’s an informal alternative to ’Here’s my complaint.’

*** To be fair, some do sound a little more reasonable. The thing is, what reputable institution would include those that aren’t sound?

Other articles on Code for life:

An horrific case of natural health treatment of cancer

Homeopathy check-up: Not in the health system, disclaimers on labels

GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are ’natural’

Have your say on the development of a Natural Health Products Bill

Conspiring against science

0 Responses to “In good health or not? – "natural health" advertising in newspapers, magazines”

  • Not colon cleansing! It turns up in the various Sunday supplements as well. I think the last one I read was where a reporter had been sent to try it out…
    You have a good point – unfortunately even Google doesn’t follow it. You’ll have seen the various ‘alt’ ads that crop up on Sciblogs? (the US version, not ‘ours’!)

  • I think the last one I read was where a reporter had been sent to try it out…

    Oh My Goodness. What idiot would volunteer?? Maybe the editor insisted and the reporters drew straws? I mean you’d be volunteering to have someone shove a tube up your anus and squirt good-knows-what in… anyway, I guess readers are getting the picture…

    You’ll have seen the various ‘alt’ ads that crop up on Sciblogs? (the US version, not ‘ours’!)

    A point I think is that this is an editorial decision, same as for the newspapers. That’s what gets me. Surely this kind of advertising is cross-purposes to the articles and although advertisers do pay, readers pay to read the articles, which is what supports the circulation (and hence attracts the advertisers). A similar case could be made for the situation in scienceblogs: too much woo will put some readers off.

    On another topic, the test match must be having an impact… the blog is having a pretty quiet night! 🙂