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In the dietary supplements industry, products cannot be marketed as treating, curing or preventing a disease. This is basic, and should underlie all marketing language. However, FTC guidelines may not be as commonly considered, even though running afoul of them is quite burdensome.
August 25, 2015
Marketing science and research in the supplement industry should first and foremost follow both truth in advertising and guidelines set out in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA). They may be internal guidelines set to a higher standard of truth and accuracy inside the company, but they should at least meet the minimum guidelines set forth by FDA and FTC.
Everyone working in this industry should know that products cannot be marketed as treating, curing or preventing a disease. This is basic, and should underlie all marketing language. However, FTC guidelines may not be as commonly considered, even though running afoul of them is quite burdensome.
The FTC has set very specific guidelines to follow:
Claims: “... there may be certain limited instances when a carefully qualified health claim in advertising may be permissible under FTC law, in circumstances where it has not been authorized for labeling. However, supplement marketers are cautioned that FTC will require both strong scientific support and careful presentation for such claims."
Substantiating claims: “Claims that are difficult for consumers to assess on their own are held to a more exacting standard. Examples include health claims that may be subject to a placebo effect or technical claims that consumers cannot readily verify for themselves."
Clinical trial data marketing: “An advertisement can be accurate or misleading because of what it does say, and it can also be inaccurate and misleading for what it does not say." The standard is based on what “experts in the field believe is reasonable."
Internal company standards of what is reasonable or fair to the consumer may exceed the minimum standards FTC requires, and this is the standard to judge which companies are the best in terms of fairness and accuracy in marketing claims or statements. This is true in terms of what they say, as well as what they imply.
Examples of “truth in advertising" would be:
In weight loss studies, if a protocol calls for an exercise regimen to be followed, it must be made clear to the consumer that to achieve these study results, the same regimen must be followed. “Eat pizza for dinner and lose weight while you sleep" would not be a recommended claim.
When a company advertises “university studies show" a given result, it is the company's duty to be able to substantiate the result, especially if the consumer cannot verify the statement himself (think unpublished studies).
If a company’s advertising states that 50 percent of specialists recommend a product, it is inferred that the product produces a given effect. It is the duty of the company to be able to verify both the statement and the implied effect.
When a company makes the statement that a product supports the immune system, the immune support claim must be verifiable.
If a company makes a statement that a product supports joint health into old age, that claim must be verifiable. All advertising and marketing materials should use appropriate language per FDA and FTC guidance.
When to disclose qualifying information is important to maintain truth and accuracy. Examples of this include:
If a company advertises that a supplement will mitigate a deficiency that occurs in only 1 percent of the population targeted for advertising, the company should disclose this fact and also state that only 1 percent of people will likely benefit from taking the product.
If a company advertises that a product has an anti-aging effect in humans but cites data and gives references for in vitro studies only, the company is misrepresenting the product.
If disclosure of information to qualify a statement is necessary, it should be presented clearly and posted prominently in language the consumer can understand. The disclosures need to be unambiguous and direct to be effective.
What ‘Truth in Advertising’ Means to Consumers
Companies that spend money for research on their own products and then disclose the results in a clear and fair way will reap the benefits of their investment. This is true only if the message to the consumer is understandable and well-balanced.
It has to be assumed that the consumer does not have any scientific background other than what is generally known in the supplement industry. The consumer can then weigh the benefits of using the product, and this will build future credibility of the company. Reputation and credibility is really all that a company has at the end of the day. The company will also be judged by his peer companies.
The POM Wonderful vs. Coke Supreme Court decision serves as a reminder of the unwise practice of misleading consumers by implying a product contains something it does not, or in quantities not actually present. Advertisers should reconsider the labeling of a synthetic ingredient with “nature identical" in tiny print under a large photo of a natural source of that synthesized material.
Avoiding Extremes in Advertising
Scientific journal article writing levels are usually not understandable to the average consumer. 'Translating' complex science down to consumer readership level is important because that is the point where companies can market either deceptively or fairly.
On the other extreme, oversimplified presentations may dilute the meaning of the results, which is also unfair to the consumer.
Instructing consumers on the relative meaning of animal, cell or even human studies is often difficult because even scientists will disagree on how to interpret research results.
One group of researchers will often overstress the importance and meaning of their results compared to results from other laboratories.
In this labyrinth of truth and significance, there is only one guidepost that can ultimately be used—is it a fair statement of the facts, and are company statements fair to the consumer?
Shaheen Majeed, marketing director as Sabinsa Corp., has handled a variety of sales positions, representing the company's substantial portfolio of proprietary nutritional and cosmeceutical ingredients, which included U.S. tri-state region sales, California sales manager, and Latin American business development, a responsibility he still handles in addition to his current role as marketing director.
President worldwide, Sabinsa
Shaheen Majeed has been involved in nearly every aspect of the Sami Labs/Sabinsa Group of Companies. He oversees the Sami-Sabinsa contract farming program to ensure best agricultural practices and fair pay for farmers, the expanding portfolio of published studies on the company's branded ingredients, and is deeply involved in regulatory compliance to meet requirements in numerous countries throughout the world. He holds board positions with Sabinsa, Sami Labs, and Sami Direct, the Group's successful multi-level marketing company in Southeast Asia.
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