A pain in the ads

How much are we influenced by advertising and publicity? It’s tempting to think that while the feeble-minded “masses” may be swayed or manipulated by the hidden persuaders, we ourselves are immune by reason of our strength of character and superior intellects.

A useful antidote to this idea is to ask yourself to name a chocolate bar. The odds are that names like Mars, Aero or more generic names like Cadburys will spring immediately to mind (Perhaps Hershey if you are American).

The chastening reality is that we can name only products that have had millions of pounds worth of advertising poured into publicising them over many years.

Shaming though this discovery may be, things are even worse when it comes to the arts and literature. Who are the greatest writers? Names like Shakespeare and Dickens come immediately to mind. But while it’s perfectly true that the plays and the novels are brilliant works, that is not the real reason that their names stand out historically or why we know them so well – it is because they were the most commercially successful writers of their day – thousands of copies of their works were printed and distributed.

Does any of this matter? My reason for raising it is the news that the Advertising Standards Authority has recently ruled against the makers of the painkiller Neurofen for misleading TV advertising in what seems to me to be an interesting precedent.

Anyone watching ITV in April this year will have seen advertisements in which a woman is shown suffering from back pain. The Neurofen pills she swallows travel down her digestive system and target the pulsating red centre of pain in the small of her back. The images are accompanied by text and voice over which say that the pills “provide you with constant targeted pain relief.” The product is called  “Neurofen Joint and Back” – a pretty clear indication that the makers are claiming not just targeted pain relief but relief specifically targeted at back pain.

Neurofen ( a commercial name for Ibuprofen) is a Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory that is licensed for use as a painkiller for a wide range of types of pain. Like all NSAIDs, it acts through the bloodstream by inhibiting the chemical messengers that signal pain at the site of any injury. While Neurofen can “target” pain in the sense of  stopping pain from any inflamed area – whether a broken rib, or an arthritic joint, or a sport bruise – what it cannot do is to target any specific selected area of the body, such as the lower back, as claimed in its name and its TV ads.

18 people complained about the ad. The ASA ruled that  “We . . . considered that, in the context of an ad focused on the alleviation of back pain, and given the product name, viewers were likely to understand that Nurofen Joint and Back was specifically designed to relieve back and joint pain, rather than pain generally. We also considered that viewers were likely to infer that the product had a special mechanism or contained an active ingredient which made it especially effective for back and joint pain in comparison to other painkillers.”

The ASA ruled that the ad breached the rules on misleading advertising and said it must not appear again in its present form.

What interested me about this case was that it was the first one I can recall where the advertiser had actually told a deliberate lie about their product.

It’s obviously perfectly normal for advertisers to try to pull the wool over our eyes about their wares. Pedigree Chum isn’t just a tin of dog food; according to the makers it promotes, “Strong teeth and gums – easy digestion – soft skin and a shiny coat – healthy joints  and energy.”

And dog food peddlers are, of course, far from alone in this kind of nonsense. Colgate toothpaste “makes your smile brighter and healthier” while even something as mundane as lavatory paper is, “Gentle, clean, fragrance free and dermatologically tested” according to Andrex.

But in these and similar cases, although they are indulging their talent for weasel words, the advertisers (through their agencies) are merely embellishing their products – little more than polishing their front door knobs to make them shine.

But RB UK Commercial Ltd – they used to be known as Reckitt & Coleman – went further. They didn’t just polish up their product, they (or their ad agency, Havas Worldwide London) invented a completely new property that their painkiller doesn’t in fact possess.  What they did would be like Colgate claiming its toothpaste cured indigestion, or Andrex claiming its toilet rolls increased your IQ.

In this case, the company was jumped on quickly and no doubt other ad agencies will take note that Havas Worldwide didn’t get away with telling a complete porky for its client. But, as ever, what one big company does today, other big companies, and agencies, will try on tomorrow.

There is only one realistic way to combat this tendency to weaseling: treat everything that any commercial company tells you as a lie. Try at all times to remember that dogfood makers do not give a flying fart about the health of your dog, they only want to sell you dog food.

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