Is it really "clinically proven"?

Don't be hoodwinked by ads spruiking the benefits of scientific-sounding, "clinically proven" ingredients
 
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  • Updated:30 Apr 2009
 

01.Science fiction

Cosmetics

In brief

  • We explain how suggestions of scientific proof that a product works make advertising claims appear more plausible and people more likely to buy.
  • Do these fancy claims have any substance or are consumers simply being seduced by a sophisticated new form of marketing dressed up as science?

Flick through the ads in women’s magazines these days and you could almost be reading a medical journal, with terms such as “clinically proven”, “dermo-clinical trials”, “in vitro testing” and impressive-sounding chemical names bandied around. Pharmacy and supermarket shelves are crammed with cosmetics that promise to wage war on wrinkles, and the minuscule print on the packaging invariably claims some scientific basis. There are even references to so-called clinical trials, with subject numbers and results – all that’s missing is the test-tube-wielding boffin in the lab coat.

Do these fancy claims have any substance or are consumers simply being seduced by a sophisticated new form of marketing dressed up as science? CHOICE looks at some of the tricks of the trade and the regulations in place to keep the advertisers in check.

Please note: this information was current as of April 2009 but is still a useful guide today.


Selling the dream

When, how and why did science become the new sex? Cosmetics ads in the 1980s started to include high-tech references to clinical trials and fancy chemicals. Meanwhile, the increasing presence of science in popular culture has taken it out of the lab and into the mainstream – think MythBusters, Al Gore and Dr Karl Kruszelnicki.

As the community becomes less science-phobic, advertisers have exploited science on a whole new level, using science that people can sort of understand to add respectability to products in a crowded marketplace. An ad that can “prove” a product works thanks to scientific-sounding tests and ingredients seems to give this product an edge over its competitors.

However, people claim to be sceptical of science used in advertising. One large survey found that more than half the respondents thought the scientific claims used in cosmetics ads weren’t accurate, and fewer than one in 10 thought they were completely truthful. More in-depth research found that the use of pseudoscientific language caused people to react negatively towards the ad and product advertised. Whether any of this affects people’s shopping habits is a different matter: evidence from research suggests it doesn’t

Ad man and commentator Adam Ferrier told us: “These claims work because people use them to help justify a decision they have already made at an emotional level.

“Because there is a strong desire to purchase (vanity), the scientific claim doesn’t have to be very strong for the person to justify the purchase to themselves. They’re willing to go along with it – even though, when pressed, they probably know that the science behind the scientific claim is often very weak.”

More information

If you see an ad for a cosmetic product or a complementary medicine you think stretches the limits of the claims it can make, email us at ausconsumer@choice.com.au, or the CRP. For more information and a link to the advertising code, see the Complaints Resolution Panel’s website: www.tgacrp.com.au.

 
 

 

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