Ads for miraculous Snake Oil cures are a bad journalistic practice. Is it really responsible to run boiler-plate ads disguised as “information pieces” or “news stories.” I don’t believe so.
On February 19 three such ads appeared in the Arizona Daily Star.
The first, occupying a half page of A14, asked the question, “Could this tiny pill put your doctor out of business?” Apparently not, as a disclaimer running along the bottom of the ad read:
“These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat,cure or prevent any disease. Results may vary.”
Well, I suppose so. But if you call toll free they will send you a sample.
The Second ad opened with the bold headline, “FDA Warnings may have saved my life.”
The pitch here is that certain commercially available antacids have dangerous side effects that can be completely avoided by taking “Aloecure” to balance stomach acid.
The small print disclaimer at the bottom reads:
“These statements have not been evaluated by the food and drug administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. The individual portrayed in this story is fictional. Aloecure is not a drug. If you are currently taking a prescription drug you should consult your doctor before use. For the full FDA warning please consult http://www.fda.gov/downloads/forconsumers/consumerupdates/ucm213307
The third ad, which has appeared more than once recently, doesn’t actually offer a medicine but rather information about a low level laser procedure that promises “To help almost every health problem ever experienced by a human being.”
No medical treatment claims made or implied. Products are sold for veterinary use. Your results will vary.
Nearly ten years ago the issue of preposterous snake oil ads came up and I wrote what follows in the Desert Leaf. I doubt I could make myself any clearer now than I did then.
My morning paper has become my medical advisor, promising miracle cures for whatever ails me from joint pain and tobacco addiction to the heartbreak of erectile dysfunction.
Full page ads offer a three month supply of cures or balms that have (gasp) completely escaped the notice of the medical profession. Their ingredients are absolutely guaranteed to be natural and efficacious and there’s a money-back deal if I’m unhappy or unrelieved. Just return the unused portion for a complete refund!
How do I know these wonders work, or that they’re safe, or that they won’t go to war with other medications that I might be taking? Well, there are testimonials.
Mr. JB of Dismal Seepage Nebraska writes: “Your wonderful product has transformed my life, blessings on you.” That sort of thing.
Most important, of course, is the fact that these advertisements appear in the daily paper, the publisher of which has assured us of journalism’s commitment to community service and the fearless defense of truth. Surely newspapers wouldn’t publish false, misleading, or possibly injurious advertising would they?
Of course they would, but it’s not their fault The defense of truth doesn’t extend to the copy in the ads. You see there’s this “Chinese Wall” that protects the reporting and editorial side of the newspaper business from influencing, or being influenced by, the folks on the business side. The right hand never knows what the left hand is doing.
This is supposed to guarantee an independent press. It is also a convenient way for the news and editorial folks to dodge responsibility for outrageous advertising while simultaneously reaping its financial benefits.
Newspapers that publish snake oil advertising do journalism a disservice. Rightly or wrongly these ads tend to pick away at readers’ belief in the reliability of everything they read in the paper.
Worse, this advertising is aimed at people who are desperate to relieve their arthritis pain, or lose weight, or recover their “vigah.” They may not be able to afford regular medical attention, or be embarrassed to discuss intimate physical details, but whatever the situation they are natural targets.
The defense of this sort of ad generally has two parts.
The first part argues that everyone knows the pretty girl in the ad doesn’t come with the convertible. Readers are smart enough to know that, and they won’t be taken in by outlandish claims.
But they are taken in by such claims, which is exactly why the nostrum hucksters pay for full page ads. They know such ads work.
The second defense is the “reasonable care” defense, which argues that although ad copy is looked at, there just isn’t time to do the detailed investigation of every piece of copy..
Where should papers draw the line?
Well, why not draw the line at camera-ready copy that promises miracle cures?
At least make a phone call to check. An ad in the Arizona Daily Star, for a product called “Joint Ease CMO,” recently guaranteed arthritis sufferers pain-free movement in 10 days. This was slyly contrasted to a doctor’s prescription for a “number of complicated and expensive therapies that only result in slow or partial recovery.”
This wonder concoction was unknown to the local Arthritis Foundation.
If some poor doofus buys a convertible and finds it doesn’t attract beautiful women at least his disappointment will be softened by the fact that he has a very nice car.
The man or woman who is persuaded to hazard both money and health by literally swallowing substances that at best may simply not work and at worst may have unknowable physical consequences is out either money or health. Possibly both.
What strikes me as odd about the continued appearance of ads like this is that responsible people at the Star used to know better.
In June of 1996 the Star published an ad for a weight loss product, a “Triple Medical Breakthrough,” that was supposed to blast off up to 49 lbs. in 29 days. A number of readers took exception to the ad, which seemed preposterous on the face of it but far too alluring to the desperate.
Reporter Laura Brooks investigated and found that the claims made were balderdash.
The Star published her story and Managing Editor Bobbie Jo Buel was quoted as saying, “In one sense the ad is laughable. It’s just so outrageous in its claims. But on the other hand, if any thinking person knows it’s not true, then why did we take the ad?”
A good question then, a good question now.
Maybe the ads are run for their entertainment value. I loved the August 21st ad for Ultimate Desire Testosterone Releaser. The active ingredient in this product is said to be found naturally in the human body, in meats, and in “the pollen of the massively erect Scotch Pine tree.”
Massively erect? Gosh I wish I’d written that!