Natural Cycles: ASA investigates marketing for contraception app

Posted 30 July 2018

Advertising watchdog launches formal investigation over description of product

Maev Kennedy Sun 29 Jul 2018 

The Guardian

The Advertising Standards Authority has launched a formal investigation into marketing for a Swedish app that claims to be an effective method of contraception, after reports that women have become pregnant while using it.

An ASA spokesman said it had received three complaints about Natural Cycles and its paid advertising on Facebook, which describes the app as highly accurate contraception that has been clinically tested.

“We would require robust substantiation from any company to support such a claim,” he said.

A spokesperson for Natural Cycles confirmed the investigation, but said it related to a 2017 ad and that it had accepted the ASA’s draft recommendations.

Natural Cycles is also being investigated in Sweden by the Medical Products Agency after it emerged that of 668 women who sought an abortion at a Stockholm hospital between September and December last year, 37 had been using the app for birth control.

The UK statistics are unknown, but one user wrote in the Guardian that she had become pregnant and had an abortion after relying on the app to indicate the days when she could not conceive.

The Family Planning Association is also concerned about the app. A spokeswoman said: “The use of the word ‘certified’ suggests that there is independent evidence supporting these claims, whereas in fact the only evidence is from the company itself. It has amassed a vast database, which is very interesting, but that is not the same as verified independent evidence.

“Many other apps focus on getting to know your own body, but Natural Cycles is specifically targeting itself as a contraceptive, which is concerning.”

The app’s promotion as a natural means of birth control was attractive to many women worried about taking hormones, but the association’s concern was that a generation which has come to believe there is an app for everything may be over-reliant on it without realising how motivated and disciplined users have to be to make it effective, she said.

The app was developed by two scientists from Sweden and Austria: Elina Berglund, who worked at the Cern laboratory in Geneva on the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle, and Raoul Scherwitzl. The married couple originally devised the algorithm for their own family planning, and now both work full time for the company they founded. They claim to have 600,000 users worldwide, who pay an annual subscription.

Users monitor their fertility with the app by taking their temperature each morning. It tracks the results to detect ovulation, and advises which days are safe or unsafe to have unprotected sex without the risk of conception.

The app relies on users taking their temperature at around the same time every morning, and cautions: “Remember that you must always measure as soon as you wake up before you snooze, sit/get up, or check your phone.”

The Facebook page is full of tributes from users, and one woman has posted the launch of a petition against any possibility of the app being banned in Sweden following the Medical Product Agency’s investigation.

A spokeswoman for Natural Cycles said: “We are in contact with the ASA and, since the investigation is ongoing, it would not be appropriate for us to speculate on the outcome.

“We can confirm however, that the ASA complaint in relation to the Facebook advertisement in question was actually raised in 2017. The advertisement which only ran for a few weeks has been taken out of circulation and we have accepted the draft recommendations very recently shared with us by the ASA.”

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