Posted 03 June 2013
A consumer lodged a consumer complaint against Miracle Comfrey’s advertising appearing on www.miraclecomfrey.net. The website promotes the Miracle Comfrey’s product as a solution to “… ALL skin problems!” The consumer asked for proof that this was true for there is no proof in the literature to support these claims. The company could not produce evidence and the ASA ruled against the product’s claims.
|Miracle Comfrey / K Charleston / 20879|
Ruling of the : ASA Directorate
In the matter between:
Kevin Charleston / 20879 Complainant(s)/Appellant(s)
Miracle Comfrey cc Respondent
29 May 2013
Mr Charleston lodged a consumer complaint against the respondent’s advertising appearing on www.miraclecomfrey.net. The website promotes the respondent’s product as a solution to “… ALL skin problems!” It features various “BEFORE” and “AFTER” photographs showing the healing of sores and lesions, as well as testimonials from pharmacists and customers attesting to the miraculous healing abilities this product has.
In essence, the complainant quoted the majority of claims appearing on the website, and pointed out that they require substantiation. He added that certain claims are misleading and that the testimonials are in breach of the Code (inter alia, because the healing is claimed to be “miraculous”).
Given the nature of the product, the claim that it is suitable for “ALL” skin problems is untrue and misleading.
He added that comfrey is poisonous if taken orally, and the Department of Health has banned the sale of teas and foodstuffs containing comfrey. Given that the product is not suitable for open wounds, the advertising could lead to potential hazardous consequences.
Given that the efficacy is claimed to be “miraculous”, something that is not capable of substantiation, these references to being “miraculous” cannot be made. This is also an exploitation of superstition or belief, which is prohibited in terms of the Code.
RELEVANT CLAUSES OF THE CODE OF ADVERTISING PRACTICE
The complainant identified the following clauses of the Code as relevant:
• Section II, Clause 4.1 – Substantiation
• Section II, Clause 4.2.1 – Misleading claims
• Section II, Clause 10 – Testimonials
• Section III, Clause 29 – Exploitation of superstition or beliefs
The respondent submitted that it would remove the references to “ALL” skin problems and “no scars” from its website with permanent effect. It also clarified that it does not sell foodstuffs or teas that contain comfrey.
There are several kinds of comfrey. Symphytum Officinale does not contain p.alkaloids that may cause liver damage. A Mr Danie Theron from Theron’s Comfrey has the test results from two different universities which prove this. The respondent added that Symphytum Officinale has been clinically tested and resulted in no side effects (one test subject was pregnant at the time and no complications or side effects arose).
The respondent added that taking these capsules completely healed her liver, which was damaged by jaundice suffered as a child. It further detailed its own history in using the product variants and explained that there are many satisfied customers, some who have allegedly been spared amputation as a result of using this product.
Insofar as the merit are concerned, it undertook to add the word “opinion” to all instances where testimonies are given or reference is made to God or miracles.
ASA DIRECTORATE RULING
The ASA Directorate considered all the relevant documentation submitted by the respective parties.
The respondent undertook to permanently remove the word “ALL” from its claim “For ALL skin problems!”
The ASA has a long-standing principle that often sees it accepting an unequivocal undertaking to remove or amend advertising as an adequate resolution, provided that the removal or amendment would address the concerns raised. It should be noted, however, that the decision to accept such an undertaking is discretionary.
By removing the references to “ALL” the Directorate is satisfied that at least this portion of the complaint is addressed, as it would no longer create an impression that each and every type of skin ailment or problem can be solved by using the respondent’s product/s.
The Directorate therefore accepts this undertaking on condition that the references to “ALL” are removed with immediate effect from all of the respondent’s advertising material. This is to be complied with within the deadlines stipulated in Clause 15.3 of the Procedural Guide, and the respondent’s attention is pertinently drawn to the fact that the Code (refer Clause 15.5 of the Procedural Guide) requires it to effect this withdrawal from any media in which it may appear.
References to miracles
The complainant appears to hold a view that any references to miraculous healing are inappropriate and contrary to the provisions of the Code simply because miracles cannot be substantiated.
While the Directorate does not necessarily agree that any references to miracles are automatically problematic (for example, if a user explains that he / she believes the product is a miracle it is hard to see how this is likely to be interpreted as anything more than that user’s opinion), the Directorate accepts that Clause 29 of Section III states:
“Advertisements for lucky charms or products with unproven supernatural properties including those for achieving health, wealth or happiness should not imply that these products can affect the user’s circumstances unless such statements are substantiated”.
The key concern here is therefore not so much whether or not the respondent is able to prove that a miracle has occurred, but rather whether or not it holds substantiation for its efficacy claims. Any decision in terms of this clause is therefore dependant on a decision in terms of the Code’s provisions on substantiation, and therefore the Directorate will predominantly focus on the issue of substantiation for the purpose of this ruling.
Clause 4.1 of Section II of the Code stipulates that advertisers should have substantiation on hand for any and all direct or implied claims that are capable of substantiation. It further explains that such verification should emanate from, or at least be evaluated by an independent and credible exert in the field to which the claims relate.
It is trite that the Directorate expects unequivocal and product-specific substantiation, which confirms the claims for the product as a whole, when consumed or applied at the recommended dose.
Despite referring to university tests and clinical tests, the respondent has submitted no evidence of efficacy. The Directorate does not accept anecdotal tales of satisfaction and success as evidence of efficacy, and the respondent cannot reasonably expect the Directorate to simply accept its say-so insofar as proof of efficacy is concerned.
The advertising creates an overwhelming impression that the respondent’s product/s will, as a matter of fact, heal all imaginable (or at least all the listed) conditions. These conditions include, inter alia, “… wounds and sores, acne, allergies, arthritis and rheumatism, athlete’s foot, bedsores, blemishes, blisters, blood circulation, blue bottle stings, boils and abscesses, bruises, bunions, burns, calluses, chickenpox, corns, cracked skin, eczema, fever blisters, fractures, gangrene, infections, inflammation, insect bites/stings, itching, muscle injuries, lip problems, nappy rash, piles, psoriasis, rashes, ringworm, scar tissue (prevention), seborrhea [sic], shaver’s rash, skin cancer (basal cell carcinoma), sprains, sunburn, swelling, ulcers, varicose veins, etc.”
What’s more, the advertising claims that the products are “SAFE!”, and yet the respondent has not supplied any evidence or at least independent verification of such a claim.
In addition to this, the website claims “The base cream is prescribed liberally by dermatologists”, but no evidence of this has been submitted, and no independent verification of the truthfulness of the claim provided.
In the absence of any evidence of either efficacy, safety (as claimed in the advertising) or widespread general use by dermatologists, the Directorate has no option but to find that the advertising objected to is in contravention of Clause 4.1 of Section II of the Code.
Given the above finding:
The advertisement must be withdrawn;
The process to withdraw the advertisement must be actioned with immediate effect on receipt of ruling;
The withdrawal of the advertisement must be completed within the deadlines stipulated by Clause 15.3 of the Procedural Guide; and
The advertisement may not be used again in its current format until new substantiation has been submitted, evaluated and a new ruling is made in terms of, and subject to the provisions of Clause 4.1.7 of Section II of the Code.
The complaint is upheld.