Ad Agency Insider: Is That Product Scamming You?

Let’s talk about health supplements and so-called healthy foods.

There are a million products in the market that claim that will make you bigger, stronger, slimmer and happier. These products come in pill form, powders, shakes and even cookies. Most of us know they are a load of bull, but plenty of people spend their hard earned dollars in the hopes of achieving a certain physique without changing their diet or starting an fitness program.

A couple of days ago I came across an article that touched on the claims many of these so-called health products make. For example, a common claim is that a product includes probiotics that “support your immune and digestive health.” You’ve probably heard many yogurt brands making this claim.

That sounds good, right?

As someone who works in advertising, a red flag goes off in my head whenever I see a claim that a product “supports” something. Why? The word “support” is often used in advertising to sell a product with no proven benefits. Basically, if a hard claim can be made it will be made. If not, the product will often be advertised as “supporting,” “enhancing,” or “promoting” some benefit. It’s okay to use those words because they supposedly don’t mislead a consumer into believing there is any real benefit…

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 10.04.00 AM

For example, above is a diet pill bottle that “promotes” healthy metabolism and “supports” appetite control. Unfortunately, these soft claims are legal to make, even though the product is garbage.

Plus, I’m not sure if you know, but the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements so that provides another loophole for dangerous products making dangerous claims to hit the market.

According to Dr. Sue Decottis Garcinia Combogia diet pills have been linked to hospitalizations because the rind of the Garcinia fruit contains hydroxycitric acid (HCA) which may in fact “support appetite control” but also definitely prevents your body from storming food as fat, can cause testicular atrophy and even caused toxicity in mice.

While the FDA doesn’t regulate the supplement market and as such wouldn’t even think twice about the wording used in the label or ad copy for most diet pills, certain marketing channels have taken it upon themselves to regulate claims. Google and Facebook for instance, double and triple check advertising copy for false or misleading claims.

Generally speaking, in order to make a specific claim that a product causes some real, tangible results certain criteria (including scientific evidence) must be met. For example, if a product wants to claim it “reduces stretchmarks” there must be documented proof that the ingredients in the product really do that.

If a product does not meet the criteria it cannot make such a claim. However, smart advertisers can skirt around the rules by saying it “supports the reduction of skin imperfections such as stretch marks.”

Google says that’s okay because it’s not misleading. I’m not sure I agree … I’ll let you be the judge.

If a product wants to claim that it can help your digestive health in some way, but in reality there is no proof of such a claim, it would say it “supports” your immune and digestive health. As is the case with yogurt.

Dr. Stefano Guandallini, MD and Section Chief of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Heptology and Nutrition and Medical Director of the Celiac Disease Center at the University of Chicago, has conducted a lot of research on probiotics and products in the market. Here’s what he has found, “Not all probiotics are equal. Only a minority of them have been tested properly in clinical trials to find they were indeed effective. In reality, yogurt by definition has to have two strains of bacteria, however these strains do not pass the gastrointestinal tract intact. They are destroyed by the acidity of the stomach and the enzymes of the pancreas, so nothing reaches the colon and it’s not beneficial.”

Dr. Guandallini goes on to say some yogurts have extra bacteria added to them and those strains and can be beneficial for digestive health. Activia, for instance, does contain a helpful bacteria called Bifido bacteria which has been scientifically proven to help digestion.

As such, on the Activia packaging you can see they can make the claim that the yogurt regulates your digestive health. Activia doesn’t “support digestive health” which is ambiguous, but it regulates it. That simple wording structure lets you know that the product really works. 

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Of course that’s not the whole story. Kirsten Tillisch, a gastroenterologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, notes that during the Activia studies participants were consuming the yogurt two or three times per day. She says, “I don’t know if having the yogurt once in a while will make a difference at all.”

That’s irrelevant in the world of advertising though. I know this because I work for an advertising agency that creates product packaging and engages in product marketing.

Here’s what I’ve found…

The word “support” is commonly used by companies that do not have products that meet FDA (or Google AdWords) approval. However, there are plenty of other words that companies use to sell products that may or may not work:

  • Enhances
  • Promotes
  • Helps maintain
  • Is associated with
  • Helps contour
  • Improves the appearance of

Truthfully, if you think about it closely these words mean very little in the context of product benefits. If a product “enhances” something what do you expect the tangible result to be? It’s ambiguous. If a product “helps maintain” something … shiny hair, a healthy heart, soft skin .. it’s not really doing anything. It’s only “helping” to “maintain” a state which was achieved by some other method and would likely maintain on it’s own or by continuing to follow the method by which it was first achieved.

For example if a product says it “supports retinal health” what does that mean? How does it support it? What benefit does it have? The product doesn’t clarify because it can’t.

I don’t know if I’m explaining this in the best way possible, but I do hope this makes some sense.

One commenter on the original article I mentioned says, “I wonder if one day ad agencies will run out of tricks in order to get sales.”

The answer to that is a definite NO. That’s what we’re here to do. It’s what we get paid to do. It’s what I get paid to do. I don’t like to think of my job as sitting behind my desk coming up with tricks to get you to buy a piece of crap product though.

I am lucky to work for an agency that doesn’t take on any old job – we only work with clients that we like and believe in. At the very least we work with clients we like and whose products won’t hurt anyone.

Do I sometimes think certain products are useless? Sure. Is it my job to promote that product to the best of my ability anyway? Yes. Is it your job to research products before you buy them? Absolutely. Caveat emptor. 

(Hopefully this blog post helps with that a little.)

13 comments

  1. Karen

    Very good info Kristina 🙂 I knew a bunch of health supplements were not regulated and I have struggled trying to know what I am taking actually helps. Especially calcium, vita D things that makes bones stronger. I have been using the cheap CVS probiotic for awhile and it works great. Funny, when i got the fancy $38 box the doctor recommended it never changed my digestion issues. I bet it had “supports ” on it.
    Karen recently posted…Catching UpMy Profile

    1. Kristina

      Haha it might have! The research on probiotics is still so questionable, but I think most researchers and doctors agree that some probiotics can aid in digestive health. I’m glad you have found something that works for you! 🙂

  2. Hanna @ TheMillennialNextDoor

    Great post! This was very informative. Although I’ve never really thought advertising claims hold much water, I never thought about the subtle difference between saying something actually does X and just saying it “supports” X. Good lookin’ out, Kristina!

    It’s hard and overwhelming to sort through the wheat and chaff of advertising claims and decide what’s good for you and what isn’t when it seems every source giving out information has an agenda. But it helps to keep in mind that at the end of the day, all of these companies are out to make money. I think most people have a good sense of what is legit and what is fishy most of the time. I like the follow the old rule of thumb: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

    Have a great week!
    Hanna @ TheMillennialNextDoor recently posted…DIY Upcycle Project: Chalkboard Slate Coffee TableMy Profile

    1. Kristina

      I feel lucky to have really smart friends (online and offline) who generally know what’s real and what’s questionable, but I would say 90% of the world is vastly confused. We are just blessed to be surrounded by smart people!

  3. Megan @ Meg Go Run

    Very interesting! It sometimes bugs me how food in particular is advertised. So like our box of fruity pebbles says “Great source of Vitamin D!!!”. And I mean, yeah, it may have a lot of Vitamin D, but surely there is some healthier way to get it! When I eat fruity pebbles I am not thinking, “Ooh, gotta get my vitamin D.” I am thinking “Gotta fix my sugar craving!!” 🙂
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    1. Kristina

      Fruity pebbles! I forgot those existed!!! The vitamin D claim is funny. I guess fruity pebbles are super healthy because you put them in milk getting even more vitamin D! #DoubleHealthy

  4. Ali @ Hit the Ground Running

    This is such an important post!! I’m so tired of the fake claims of food products. “Miracle” foods and the like drive me nuts. They’re so closely connected to other fake science woo, like the anti-vax and anti-GMO movements, that I just can’t help but see them as dangerous. We need to be smart consumers! Thanks for writing this!
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    1. Kristina

      All the research in the world can’t make some people see reason. I know it’s so cliche to say this, but it’s why Donald Trump is being taken seriously right now. I’m sure even he is shocked that anyone is taking him seriously!

  5. Kelly Caiazzo

    I love seeing people encouraging others to think critically about advertising on products! It’s so tempting to be lured in… but if I’ve realized anything, it’s that eating healthy and exercising are better than all the supplements and products on the market, no matter how tempting it is to think otherwise!

    1. Kristina

      So true, Kelly! I really think it only makes sense to take a supplement if your doctor says you’re lacking in some nutrient … and even then I think it’s best to try to up your intake through diet if possible.

  6. Sam @ Grapefruit & Granola

    Thanks for the useful info! I can’t stand 90% of the supplements on the market right now.
    Sam @ Grapefruit & Granola recently posted…Google Analytics Custom Report: Most Popular Days of the WeekMy Profile

    1. Kristina

      As I was writing this post I thought about you, haha. I knew the advertising part, but when it came to the science/nutrition part I was like “I need to fact check because I know Sam knows EVERYTHING!” 🙂

  7. Sam

    This is so frustrating! So much stuff marketing as running fuel is just candy or weightloss supplements try to masquerade as athlete fuel. It’s so weird! Why waste all that time on a product people are bound to discover doesn’t work? Oh well, I’m glad you work for a place you can stand behind and makes thoughtful choices. Interesting post!
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