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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We flicked through magazines and browsed marketing bumph to see what sort of sciencey-sounding claims cosmetics companies like to use.

Here are some of them.

Magazine covers

Cover A One clinical trial does not “clinically proven” make

Trilogy Rosehip Oil was “clinically proven” to have several marvellous benefits in one eight-week trial of 20 people. We don’t dispute the trial results – although, when you think about it, the “79% of users”, which is 15.8 out of 20 people, is an odd number to report. But with only one small trial, and no suggestion of any other evidence of its effectiveness, it certainly doesn’t meet the TGA’s requirements for the use of the term “clinically proven” (see Regulating claims in ads and marketing).

Cover B Skin deep terminology

Use the word “clinical” in an ad, and you get instant science cred. Make it longer, by adding “dermo” and it sounds really, really medical. The irony is that “dermo-clinical” seems to be an invention of the ad industry, and the term is yet to be adopted in the scientific and medical fraternities.

Cover C Meanwhile, back in the real world…

“In vitro tests” sounds scientific, drumming up images of labs brimming with test tubes and microscopes. And of course that’s what in vitro is: tests that take place within glass, for example in a test tube or petri dish.

In the case of cosmetics, particularly anti-ageing creams, the tests are done using specific active ingredients on skin cultures or cellular components. While they may be shown to have a demonstrable effect, this won’t necessarily translate to use of the product as a whole: other ingredients may interfere with the active ingredient, it may be very diluted in the final product, and many substances, simply can’t penetrate the outer layer of skin.

Cover D "A few people reckon it works" does not equal proof

The key to proper scientific trials is objectivity. If a product is going to show any effects, these should be objectively measured: for skin tests this usually involves photography or silicone moulds of wrinkles taken before and after treatment.

“Perception” is not measurement, and a “consumer perception study” is not objective. A “self-evaluation” – asking users if they thought the product was effective – is not objective. A “self-evaluation of 28 women over 4 weeks”, as L’Oréal boasts on one face cream package, is not only non-objective, but 28 women is not very many, and four weeks isn’t a very long time. All things considered, we’d take these claims with a grain of salt.

Cover E Tetrahydroxypropyl Ethylenediamine by any other name would not smell as sweet

Cosmetics companies love telling us about the magic ingredients in their products, and something you’ve never heard of or can’t pronounce must be good. But possibly even better is a secret trademarked name, such as Pro-Xylane or Nutrileum, implying it’s so secret and fantastic they don’t want their competitors to know what it really is.

Cover F Apples and oranges

“Hair is 4x smoother” than what? Read the fine print and you’ll see they’re comparing the shampoo plus conditioner plus serum against a shampoo alone. Is this a fair test? Shampoo strips sebum, a natural lubricant, from hair. This makes the hair cuticle rough and hair tangles more readily. Conditioner deposits a coating on the hair that smooths the cuticle and reflects light, so your hair looks shiny and is easy to comb through. So it’s not surprising that their test combination produced superior results to shampoo alone. But most conditioning combinations would probably do the same.

Cover G As flimsy as a RoC

The British Advertising Standards Authority demanded that an ad for RoC Complete Lift be pulled on the basis that it was misleading for consumers. Despite the fine print stating that the “measurable lift” was only cosmetic, rather than physical, the authority felt consumers wouldn’t appreciate the difference. This hasn’t stopped the company using this ad here in Australia, however. What we particularly love, apart from the fine print that seemingly negates every implication of the large print and imagery, are the details about the clinical evaluations.

So what does the (cosmetic) measurable lift of up to 2mm really mean? According to the fine print, the facial contour results averaged a 0.7 mm “lift”, and results of 2mm were obtained from only three of 18 people. For eyelids an average 0.8 mm “lift” was obtained, and only four of 29 subjects had results in the order of 2mm. At $50 a pop, would you be tempted to try this cream? The answer depends on whether you’re swayed more by the dominant text and imagery, or the itty-bitty fine print.

03.Regulating claims in ads and marketing

 

It’s not just cosmetics that use science to sell – complementary medicines also like to play up their scientific credentials. It seems “natural” and, by implication, “healthy” and “safe” just don’t cut it as selling points anymore. However, these companies are on a tighter rein than cosmetics when it comes to advertising claims.

There is an excellent Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code that spells out the kinds of claims that can be made about therapeutic goods, such as drugs, medical devices and herbal and complementary medicines. There are also various industry self-regulatory codes. Anybody who believes an ad or marketing material (including information on the internet, but not on product packaging) breaches the code can lodge a complaint with the Complaints Resolution Panel (CRP).

In Australia, anything claiming to have a therapeutic effect must be either listed or registered with the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

  • Listed products have to demonstrate they are relatively safe to use and produced according to good manufacturing practices.
  • Registered products must meet the above criteria and also have substantial proof they work.

Most herbal and complementary medicines prefer to go the way of listing rather than registering: it’s a lot cheaper, they don’t have to undergo the scrutiny of rigorous clinical trials and in some cases they can rely on clever marketing to convince consumers of their effectiveness. Some companies do undertake clinical trials, although all too often they’re small and short-term, and not necessarily of good quality.

"Clinically proven"

One of the CRP’s bugbears is the use of the term “clinically proven” in ads for listed complementary medicines (to use the term, a product must be registered). After many complaints about the use of “clinically proven” in the marketing material for one such product, the CRP felt compelled to point out that the use of the term in advertising “should not even be contemplated unless unequivocally supported by robustly designed, published, peer-reviewed clinical trials which have been conducted upon the product being advertised or an identical formulation”.

It went on to explain that the claims must also take into account all evidence for a particular product, not just one or two trials – so, if a majority of trials show something has no effect, the advertiser can’t highlight the few that did. The Complementary Healthcare Council, the leading industry association for companies that sell complementary medicines, duly reported this to its members in September 2008. We await the outcome with interest.

Cosmetics companies aren’t bound by the advertising regulations for therapeutic products because they’re not considered therapeutic. A therapeutic product is defined in several ways, including that it’s used in “influencing, inhibiting or modifying a physiological process in persons…”

However, the line between cosmetics and therapeutics has become increasingly blurred with the popularisation of the concept of “cosmeceuticals” to describe cosmetics that have more than just a temporary cosmetic effect. Anti-ageing creams and lotions often fall into this category.

The trouble is, once they start claiming to have more than a cosmetic effect they run the risk of meeting the definition of a therapeutic good, and fall under the jurisdiction of the TGA. So in ads and marketing, they imply, rather than clearly state, that the effect is more than just cosmetic.

A few have gone too far, and therapeutic claims have been brought to the attention of the CRP. Obviously, it’s easier for the company to modify its claims, rather than go through the process of listing or registering the product, and most agree to do this. In any case, the original ad exposure probably boosted sales, so the damage or the benefit, depending on your point of view, has already been done.

 


 

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