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Advertising Standards Canada says the number of complaints about exaggerated health claims in advertising rose significantly last year. (iStockphoto)
Advertising Standards Canada says the number of complaints about exaggerated health claims in advertising rose significantly last year. (iStockphoto)

Persuasion Notebook

No miracle cure. Complaints about health-claim ads in Canada jump Add to ...

Persuasion Notebook offers quick hits on the business of persuasion from The Globe and Mail’s marketing and advertising reporter, Susan Krashinsky. Read more on The Globe’s marketing page and follow Susan on Twitter @Susinsky.

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The number of complaints about exaggerated health claims in advertising rose significantly last year, according to an annual report by Advertising Standards Canada, the self-regulatory body that oversees the ad industry.

Canadian consumers submitted significantly more complaints about “complementary and alternative medicine” services to ASC in 2013. A number of those complaints were upheld, the report said.

For example, an unnamed spa in B.C. took out ads online saying that its facials “actually reversed the aging process.” Because the spa owners had no scientific proof to back up that statement, ASC found that it violated clauses in the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards that require clarity and accuracy. That includes a clause stating that claims in ads must be “supportable” with research that follows accepted standards.

In another case, an Ottawa therapist who practices Maya Abdominal and Uterine Therapy claimed on his or her website that the treatment could relieve conditions including impotence and certain types of cancer. It was also found in violation of the rules about accuracy, as well as rules about “professional or scientific claims.” Advertisers are not allowed to “imply that they have a scientific basis that they do not truly possess,” according to the Code.

The concerns over health claims are just one part of an increased outcry from Canadians about truth in advertising.

While the report shows that complaints to ASC did not rise this year, they did continue a trend that ASC has been noticing since 2011, when complaints jumped 51 per cent to their highest level in more than a decade. Aside from the bulk – with more than 1,800 complaints lodged – the shift that ASC noticed that year was a declining focus on ads that were seen as offensive, and a swiftly growing focus on ads that struck consumers as dishonest.

That focus on truth in ads has continued to make up the majority of complaints in the two years since. In 2013, 467 complaints touched on issues of “accuracy and clarity” and/or “price claims”; while 289 focused on “unacceptable depictions and portrayals.”

“Truth in advertising is paramount for Canadians,” ASC vice-president Janet Feasby said in a statement. “…Ads that omitted important terms of an offer, illegible disclaimers in television commercials, and ads with exaggerated health claims were issues of particular concern.”

Here is how complaints in 2013 break down:

  • 1,286 complaints (down 1.8 per cent)
  • 1,075 ads were the subject of complaints (up 1.7 per cent)
  • 100 “raised potential code issues and [were] forwarded to councils” (independent volunteers – a combination of consumers and industry representatives – make up the councils that adjudicate complaints.)
  • 79 complaints were upheld

Follow on Twitter: @susinsky

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