March 2011: homeopathy
If you are unsure about what homeopathy is and why it is a matter of concern, then you might find this article helpful.
1. Find a misleading claim on the website of a local practitioner
Search online for a therapist in your area (or look through local newspapers for clinics that have websites). We suggest you find one near you so that we have a good spread of websites, rather than just the top hits in Google! However, as long as you find one based in the UK, it's not essential that it is local.
Look for statements that say things like:
- "We treat…"
- "People come to us with..."
- "Our patients have found it useful for…"
- "Our qualified therapists are highly experienced in..."
- "We are consulted for many conditions..."
- "We commonly see patients with..."
…or just a list of one or more medical conditions.
If there is no robust evidence of a therapy's efficacy and especially if it is scientifically implausible in the first place, any claim that it can be used to treat any medical conditions should fail to pass muster with the Advertising Standards Authority. Remember that it is up to advertiser to substantiate any claims he or she makes.
2. Record the details of the misleading claim
Ideally, take a snapshot of the page with the claims — it is useful keep a copy in case the advertiser tries to deny that the webpage existed. This can be done using screen capture software, by using Alt-PrintScreen and pasting into a document or graphics program, by creating a pdf of the page or by using a web cache facility, eg www.freezepage.com. Alternatively, print the page and either submit it by post or scan it in and send it electronically.
Make sure you have a copy of the website URL(s), the therapist's name, the business name and address.
3. Submit your complaint to the ASA
You can submit a complaint either by post or using their online form. If you use the online form, select 'Internet' for 'Type of advertisement' and 'Claims on marketers' own websites' for 'SubType'. If you are submitting it by post or email, look at the web form and ensure you supply all the information it asks for. This template document is useful while writing your complaint and keeping a record of it (the ASA don't send you a copy of your complaint if you use the online form).
Wording the complaint is easy: state what the claim is and simply say you doubt the advertiser can substantiate the claim. It is the responsibility of the advertiser to provide the evidence to back up any claims being made.
Your details are not divulged to the advertiser (unless you are a competitor) and will not be published on the ASA's website.
Some useful stock phrases that highlight the misleading nature of the claims and their effects:
- Because of the lack of a plausible mechanism of action for [insert name of therapy] and the lack of any robust clinical evidence to support these claims, I believe these claims are misleading.
- I believe these claims may delay or dissuade some people with serious medical conditions from seeking proper and possibly urgently needed medical advice and treatment.
- I believe these claims abuse the trust of members of the public and exploits many potential customers' lack of experience or knowledge about health and [insert name of therapy].
We encourage you to use your own words and say why you think the website or claims are misleading, but it is best kept simple and straightforward.
It is not necessary, but please tell us if you have submitted a complaint, and give us just the most basic details of your complaint. We will keep your details confidential.
And please don't hesitate to contact us if you have any questions about your complaint, how it should be phrased, if it is a valid complaint, or any other question. We are here to support you if necessary.
4. Wait for the ASA to deal with your complaint
The ASA should acknowledge your complaint within a few days and give you a reference number. Once they start to investigate, they will contact the advertiser. If the advertiser agrees to withdraw the misleading claims, the job is done and you have helped protect the public from misleading claims. If the complaint is dealt with in this 'informal' way, the advertiser's name will not appear on the ASA's website.
If the ASA decide to conduct a formal investigation, they will ask the advertiser to supply evidence to substantiate the claims they have made. The ASA will then consider whether that evidence is adequate to substantiate the claims according to their rules and guidance. The ASA will draft an adjudication that you will be able comment on and, if confirmed by their Council, the full text of it will be published on the ASA's website for all to see. If an advertiser refuses to amend claims, the ASA have other sanctions available.
5. When you get a response from the ASA, let us know
So we can highlight and draw any lessons from your experience, send us the details and we'll publish your complaint or a summary of it on our website. If requested, we will withhold your personal details. If the ASA send you a copy of their adjudication, please observe their embargo on making the details public.
Remember that an advertiser removing misleading claims is a win — there doesn't need to be an ASA adjudication against an advertiser. It's the removal of the misleading claims that's important.