Posted 09 February 2021
A complaint was laid with the ARB (Advertising Regulatory Board) regarding Homemark’s claims for their ‘Weighted Blanket’, which claimed among other, “It is useful for anxiety and stress”, “Creates a focus on ADHD”, “Alleviates restless leg syndrome”, “Enhances sleep quality”, “It helps you stay asleep at night”. The complainant argued that these claims are not supported by evidence and therefore dupe consumers into spending around R800 for a product with no evidence of being able to help.
Here is the ARB ruling
Decision of the ADVERTISING REGULATORY BOARD
Complainant: Dr Harris Steinman
Advertiser: Homemark (Pty) Ltd
File reference: 1093 – Homemark Anti-Anxiety Weighted Blanket – Dr Harris Steinman
Date: 15 January 2021
The Directorate of the Advertising Regulatory Board has been called on to consider a complaint by Dr Harris Steinman against Homemark’s online advertising promoting its “Anti Anxiety Weighted Blanket”. The URL provided by the Complainant was:
Description of the Advertising
The advertising claims that the weighted blanket simulates “… the feeling of being held or hugged” and that this “… increases serotonin and melatonin levels and decreases cortisol levels-improving your mood and promoting restful sleep at the same time”.
The following claims appear below this description:
- “It is useful for anxiety and stress”.
- “Creates a focus on ADHD”.
- “Alleviates restless leg syndrome”.
- “Enhances sleep quality”.
- “It helps you stay asleep at night”.
- “It makes you fall asleep faster”.
- “Improves mood”.
- “Aids the elderly”.
- “It’s similar to getting a huge hug”.
The Complainant submitted that he searched PubMed (which comprises more than 30 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and online books) and found five recent pertinent research papers on evidence for the use of weighted blankets.
The most pertinent of these results was a review of all databases and sites included the “Cochrane Library”, “PubMed”, “PsycINFO”, “CINAHL”, “OTseeker”, “Web of Science”, and “Nursing Reference Center Plus”.
The review concludes that “Weighted blankets may be an appropriate therapeutic tool in reducing anxiety; however, there is not enough evidence to suggest they are helpful with insomnia”. It also notes that “The outcomes of these studies suggest that weighted blankets have the potential to be beneficial in limited settings and populations”. In addition, the article notes that “Evidence-based research on the effectiveness of weighted blankets in reducing anxiety and insomnia is sparse. More research is needed to define guidelines for the use of weighted blankets in clinical practice and to investigate the underlying mechanism of action. This systematic review can be used to begin an investigation of the use of weighted blankets for larger and more diverse populations”.
The other research articles were limited to studying the impact or value of these weighted blankets for very specific medical conditions and populations, namely autistic children and children on the autism spectrum, people with psychiatric disorders who suffer from insomnia, and adults receiving chemotherapy.
Given the above, the Advertiser cannot claim to offer a product that alleviates all the conditions listed to the general public, as there is simply no evidence to show that this is true or possible. Doing so deceives consumers and brings advertising into disrepute.
The Complainant added that the Advertiser was a serial offender with a long history of making unsubstantiated claims. He proposed that the ARB should take action to prevent this behaviour from continuing.
The Advertiser did not respond to the ARB’s request for comment. It should be noted, however, that in prior disputes before the ARB, the Advertiser confirmed that it was not a member of the ARB and that it had no intention to engage in any correspondence with the ARB.
Application of the Code of Advertising Practice
The Complainant identified Clause 4.1 of Section II (Substantiation) as relevant to this dispute.
Having considered all the material before it, the Directorate of the ARB issues the following finding.
The Advertiser has not responded to the complaint and has not engaged with the ARB. On prior occasion, it submitted that it was not a member of the ARB and that it would not engage in correspondence with the ARB. The Advertiser was afforded the prescribed time to reply to the complaint, should it wish. It did not, and the ARB advised the Advertiser that it would proceed to consider the matter for the benefit of its members.
The ARB’s Memorandum of Incorporation of the ARB states:
“3.3 The Company has no jurisdiction over any person or entity who is not a member and may not, in the absence of a submission to its jurisdiction, require non-members to participate in its processes, issue any instruction, order or ruling against the non-member or sanction it. However, the Company may consider and issue a ruling to its members (which is not binding on non-members) regarding any advertisement regardless of by whom it is published to determine, on behalf of its members, whether its members should accept any advertisement before it is published or should withdraw any advertisement if it has been published.”
In other words, if you are not a member and do not submit to the jurisdiction of the ARB, the ARB will consider and rule on your advertising for the guidance of its members.
The ARB will rule on whatever is before it when making a decision for the guidance of its members. This ruling will be binding only on ARB members and on broadcasters in terms of the Electronic Communications Act.
The ARB will therefore proceed to consider this matter for the guidance of its members.
Clause 4.1 of Section II expects advertisers to hold independent substantiation for all direct and implied claims that are capable of objective verification. It specifies that evidence which does not relate to survey-type data should emanate from, or be evaluated by an entity who is independent, credible, and an expert in the field to which the relevant claims relate.
One could reasonably argue that subjective statements such as “It’s similar to getting a huge hug” and the suggestion that lying under this blanket simulates the “… feeling of being held or hugged”, do not require independent verification from an expert. These are clearly a matter of opinion, and would not likely be interpreted as capable of, or subject to objective proof.
However, the same cannot be said for the other claims, which are specific in nature, imply specific efficacy in terms of recognised medical conditions such as “anxiety and stress” (for which the blanket is said to be beneficial), “ADHD” (for which the blanket is said to be beneficial), “restless leg syndrome” (which it claims to alleviate) and “increases serotonin and melatonin levels and decreases cortisol levels” said to elevate mood and improve sleep.
The Directorate also agrees with the Complainant that research conducted on specific patients (such as those listed in the reviews highlighted by the Complainant) cannot be assumed to apply to the broader public, at least not without express verification from a relevant expert.
The advertising creates a distinct impression that research has been done to prove that using this blanket will provide the advertised benefits to people who are anxious or stressed, have been diagnosed with ADHD, people who have been diagnosed with restless leg syndrome and elderly people.
Similarly, the claim that sleeping under this blanket will impact a user’s internal hormonal levels (specifically their serotonin and melatonin levels) imply that research has been done and blood tests conducted to prove the claimed elevation in these hormones.
The Advertiser has not submitted any evidence to show that its claims are backed by any independent verification as required by the Code. The Directorate was also unable to locate any references (or access) to such research on the Advertiser’s website.
The research to which the Complainant refers does not take matters further, as it pertinently notes an absence of generalisability and sufficient scientific data to support such broad claims.
As such, and given the Advertiser’s election not to communicate with the ARB, the Directorate has no alternative but to find that the advertiser’s advertisement communicates unsubstantiated claims in contravention of Clause 4.1 of Section II of the Code.
Members of the ARB and broadcasters are advised not to accept advertising from the
Advertiser for its “Anti Anxiety Weighted Blanket” which claims:
- That using the blanket “increases serotonin and melatonin levels and decreases cortisol levels-improving your mood and promoting restful sleep at the same time”,
- That using the blanket “is useful for anxiety and stress”,
- That using the blanket “Creates a focus on ADHD”,
- That using the blanket “Alleviates restless leg syndrome”,
- That using the blanket “Enhances sleep quality”,
- That using the blanket “helps you stay asleep at night”,
- That using the blanket “makes you fall asleep faster”,
- That using the blanket “Improves mood”,
- That using the blanket “Aids the elderly”.
The Directorate notes the Complainant’s submissions that the Advertiser “… is a serial offender with a long history of promoting products that dupe consumers” and his request for the ARB to “… take action to prevent this from continuing”.
During 2019 and 2020, there have been five adverse rulings against Homemark (excluding the present ruling). One of these rulings found that the advertiser had breached an earlier
ARB ruling by continuing to make claims that had already been ruled against. At this time, the ARB issued a “Member Alert” to its members advising them that the Advertiser was not an ARB member, and that it was therefore under no legal obligation to comply, which meant no sanctions could be imposed or enforced on the Advertiser directly. As such, there is a limit to what the ARB can do to “prevent this from continuing”.
Each adverse ruling advises members not to accept specific advertising and claims, in the event that the Advertiser chooses to utilise that member’s media platform to advertise. These members include, inter alia, the National Association of Broadcasters (which represents television and radio broadcasters), the Association for Communication and Advertising (which represents creative agencies and advertisers), the Marketing Association of South Africa (which represents marketers across the continent) and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (which represents online publishers).
As was the case before, this ruling will also be made available as a public document, and all ARB members will be advised not to accept the advertising and claims ruled against in this ruling.
This is the extent to which the ARB is empowered to “take action to prevent this from continuing”.