"May" advertising

By Michael Edmonds 17/01/2013 6

Yesterday I was sitting in the chemist waiting for a prescription when I noticed an advertisement for “Inner Health Immune Booster for Kids”, a product which contains probiotic bacteria.

The advertisement claimed that

“A clinical trial has shown that, when taken daily, the exclusive probiotic strains in Inner Health Immune Booster for Kids MAY:

  • reduce the frequency of symptoms of colds and flu
  • reduce the duration of colds and flu symptoms
  • boost immune system function”

The emphasis of the word MAY is mine. What the use of this word suggests to me is that the results of the clinical trial were so inconclusive that they didn’t show anything statistically useful, otherwise wouldn’t they have used the word “WILL”?

After all what does it mean when you use the word “may”? It is a very non-commital word. If I say I “may” go to the movies, then it is just as likely that I may not. Given this reasoning wouldn’t it be just as legitimate to suggest that Inner Helath Immune Booster for Kids MAY NOT:

  • reduce the frequency of symptoms of colds and flu
  • reduce the duration of colds and flu symptoms
  • boost immune system function”

Though this probably would not be considered a very effective advertising campaign!

Alternatively would it be just as legitimate to say that this product MAY cause a child to become a genius or to develop superspeed?

This may seem like a dig at Inner Health Immune Booster for Kids, but there are many, many health products that make use of this sort of vague advertising. Surely if they are going to make claims about a product they should be more reliable, e.g. “research has shown that this product reduces …….”

Perhaps readers have other examples of similar non-commital examples of advertising which they would like to share?



6 Responses to “"May" advertising”

  • For many years, I’ve tended to place “not” after “may” when reading adverts. After all, the resulting sentence is just as accurate…

  • I was reviewing the past ASA decisions for “Biomag” magnetic bed underlays and it seems their most successful response to a complaint was basically “we were careful not to actually say that our product does anything”.

    For example, in response to complaint 07/113 (http://asa.co.nz/display.php?ascb_number=07113) here are some of the things that the Biomag representative said:

    “I have never said “underlays increase circulation”, on television. In fact I haven’t mentioned the word circulation this year, and in previous years under TAPs guidance I have only ever spoken of “supporting circulation “.”

    “[The complainant] also alleges we say the BioMag relieves pain. This is wrong. We are always careful to say it “could” relieve pain”

    Unfortunately, it seems the advice of TAPS (Therapeutic Advertising Pre-vetting System) is generally to use non-committal wording such as this in advertisements.

    • Mark,
      Yes, the more accomplished purveyors of products with little scientific evidence to support them certainly seem know how to word advertisements so they cant be challenged.
      I didn’t realise that TAPS actually advise them to do this, though.

      Hopefully by pointing out these sorts of word games the public can at least be educated about what such statements do (and dont ) really mean

  • Agreed, it’s important to take every word of such claims literally just as they would be if a complaint were made. After all, one should expect an advertiser to put their best foot forward.

    For this reason, it’s also important to consider what is not said. If an advertisement chooses to say the product “may” help with something instead of, say, it “has been shown to” help, that should probably be interpreted that it has not been shown to help whatever the advertisement says it may help.

    From the TAPS guidelines on their website (Guideline 1 – http://www.anza.co.nz/Section?Action=View&Section_id=33) I found the following paragraph that seems to essentially say that it’s alright to make vague therapeutic claims that would only be interpreted as therapeutic claims in a colloquial sense but not in an absolutely literal sense:

    “Otherwise a company may still advertise a product without getting consent and without a “therapeutic claim”. Essentially there is leeway for certain health or nutritional claims or statements relating to the normal physiological or biochemical function. This is covered generally by such statements as “assists or supports the normal physiological function”. Even terms like “enhancement” “fortify” and “improvement” would need to be used with care and would generally be a problem, as they imply an improvement or acceleration to the normal function. Often it is a simply a question of wording. For example, a statement such as “provides nutritional support for a healthy immune system” escapes therapeutic specificity whereas, “prevents, treats or cures flus or viruses” attracts liability and would be prohibited under the Medicines Act.”

  • Was the clinical trial referenced? It should be illegal on advertising to make such a claim – even with the prevarication, without a reference.

    ps. Writing a blog post may prevent built up frustration which is thought to be related to heart attacks.

  • I’ve done a bit more reading up on the TAPS website, and it seems that such claims are classified as either “health claims” or “therapeutic claims”. It looks like therapeutic claims are “claims for a therapeutic purpose” as defined in the Medicines Act 1981 section 4 (http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1981/0118/latest/DLM55001.html) whereas health claims are defined as “claims which support the normal physiological function”.

    As far as I can tell, it seems that “health claims” are entirely unregulated and TAPS is willing to approve any of them, but “therapeutic claims” are regulated. There is a section of the TAPS guidelines on the ANZA website that has a list of examples of each type of claim with a “digestive system” theme: http://www.anza.co.nz/Section?Action=View&Section_id=45

    The claims about reducing the frequency of symptoms and duration of cold and flu seem to be “therapeutic claims”, so I expect the advertiser should be liable to provide substantiation for those claims if challenged. That it “may… boost immune system function”, however, seems likely to be a health claim and, as far as I can tell, would therefore go unchallenged by TAPS and, presumably, the ASA.