I wanted a doll for my fourth birthday. I had shown my grandmother the doll in the local country store. But instead she gave me a little brass statue of three monkeys; one had its hands over it eyes, one had its hands over its ears and the other had its hands over its mouth. She told me to listen up and remember that a good rule was to speak no evil, see no evil and hear no evil. Since she was the kind of person you minded well, I remembered that lesson all the rest of my days.
But a few years ago, I got a different message from those three brass monkeys when I realized that sometimes it is necessary to see evil and report it. That happened after my investigation of the toxic properties of soy, which are never disclosed to the customer. Naturally advertisers accentuate the positive aspects of a product and de-emphasize the negative. This is merely good business. But good business easily crosses the fine line into monkey business. Remember the rule about telling the whole truth?
The International Code of Advertising, to which advertisers and media give lip service, demands that “all advertising should be legal, decent, honest and truthful.” It states:
Advertisements should not contain any statement or visual presentation which directly or by implication, omission, ambiguity or exaggerated claim is likely to mislead the consumer. . . Advertisements should not misuse research results or quotations from technical and scientific publications.
But keep your eyes and ears open and you will find that this voluntary code is often broken. As most countries have a forum for public complaints, it is important that ordinary people like you and me make the effort to keep advertisers honest by complaining.
A recent decision in Australia shows what a difference a complaint can make. It involved false advertising of a product called Promensil, sold as a phytoestrogen pill for menopause problems. The complaint was lodged against Novogen, the manufacturer, by Alastair MacLennan, editor of Climacteric, The Journal of the International Menopause Society. A study published in the professional journal showed that Promensil had no greater effect than a placebo. Yet advertisements for the product inferred that the trials showed that the product was effective. On March 22, 2000, the Australian Therapeutic Goods Advertising Council responded with the following verdict:
Novogen’s claim that its purpose was to show there was not lack of science behind the claims for its product does not sit comfortably with the expressed inconclusiveness of the very references upon which it relies and with the adverse conclusions of the two published studies which it sponsored and supported. . . Nogoven has not satisfied the Panel that at the time of advertisement there was scientifically valid proof that its claims for Promensil were true. Advertising of this kind must stop, lest it bring the complementary medicines industry as a whole into disrepute. The Panel request Novogen Limited to withdraw the advertisement from further publication until the claims are proved to be true by scientifically valid trials, the results of which have been published in peer-reviewed publications and, within 14 days of being notified of their request, to provide evidence to the Panel of its compliance.
The Australian Authority is a joint industry-government organization which has enforcement powers. New Zealand’s Advertising Standards Authority does not have enforcement powers and its members, which fund it, are from media and advertising agencies. In fact, its rules state that the Agency will do all acts which may from time to time be necessary or expedient for the benefit and protection of Members so far as the same are permitted by laws of New Zealand. Similarly, in the US, there is no one panel with decision-making powers to which citizens can complain.
But that does not mean that citizens in New Zealand and the United States have no power. In New Zealand, decisions are occasionally given in favor of a complainant and then act as a deterrent to advertisers. In the US, the media and most industries are very sensitive to consumer attitudes and to the possibility of product liability claims.
The Australian decision, and citizen outrage in general, led to similar decisions in New Zealand against So-Good soy milk and Flora Pro-Activ margarine (called “Take Control” in the US), developed by Unilever. Thus, we no longer have advertized claims that drinking a class of soy milk a day can lower cholesterol or that three weeks of an estrogen-laced margarine can reduce cholesterol levels. In Europe, approval for the sale of the Unilever cholesterol-lowering margarine was delayed because of “widespread public concern about scientific manipulation of food products,” according the Financial Times, March 22, 1999. As of this date, approval is still withheld. Grass roots action CAN make a difference!
Making a complaint takes time and effort but costs nothing. Next time you see false advertising, remember that the only person who should complain is you. Complain to the appropriate government authorities; complain to the publications that carry false advertisements. Only if we stop covering our eyes and then speak out will this monkey business stop. Find out who your local regulators are and get started!
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2000.