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Unhealthy Business Practices Impact Health Supplements

For 51 weeks of the year, Americans hate advertising. They DVR programs to avoid it, employ software to block it, and otherwise gripe about how advertising is ubiquitous, boring, insulting to their intelligence, manipulative, cynically targeted to children, duplicitous, and disruptive.

Then comes the Super Bowl, and we eagerly preview ads. We tune into the game expressly to watch them (one survey claims 25% of the viewing audience is primarily there for the commercials), discuss them, rate them, review them, and regard them as high art.

(Personally, I’m still trying to figure out what the heck the #1 rated SB ad—a bunch of Clydesdale horses rescuing a puppy—has to do with drinking Budweiser.)

So, while the nation is still in paying-attention-to product-claims mode, this seems like a good opportunity to address some legal cases related to truth—and absence of such—in advertising. And why it affects you as an entrepreneur.

Kicking things off, POM Wonderful, Inc. just received the less than wonderful news that the FTC’s ruling that the company made unwarranted health claims for its pomegranate juice products, like that it helped stave off medical conditions including cardiovascular disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction, was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Mostly because studies showed the juice did no such thing. While that seems like a victory for consumers, an article in Forbes makes the case that the court’s ruling was actually quite narrow and still permits companies to make a whole range of generalized and dubious health claims.

Then, this past Monday, spurred on by an New York Times investigation into health supplements, the New York State attorney general’s office accused four national chains of hawking supposedly healthy dietary supplements under their store brands that ranged from useless to fraudulent to possibly harmful.

The four chains were “retailers you can trust” (e.g. Walmart, Walgreens, Target, and GNC), and the attorney general determined that about 80% of the tested products contained 0% of the herbs listed on the label.

Here are some examples:

GNC’s Herbal Plus brand Gingko Biloba: No ginko biloba
GNC’s St. John’s Wort: No St. John’s Wort
GNC’s Ginseng: No ginseng but amazingly, the Garlic contained garlic!

Target’s Up & Up brand Gingko Biloba: No gingko biloba
Target’s St John’s Wort: No St. John’s Wort
Target’s Valerian Root: No valerian root
On the bright side, once again, the Garlic contained garlic!

Walgreens’ Finest Nutrition brand: Guess what the Gingko Biloba and St. John’s Wort didn’t have? (Does this stuff even exist?) Ditto the Ginseng. Nor the Echinacea. Walgreen’s was so bad, even the Garlic came up sans garlic!

Walmart’s Spring Valley brand: Need we mention what ingredient was missing from the Gingko Biloba, St. John’s Wort, Ginseng, and Echinacea supplements?

What they did contain, for the most part, was “filler” like rice, house plants, and spruce, described as “an ornamental plant commonly used for Christmas decorations.”

On its face, this is out-and-out fraud, no different from receiving an email from a Nigerian official assuring you you’ve come into a small fortune. Arguably it’s worse, because the companies are meddling with people’s health, not to mention that these are corporations that go to great lengths to convince us to trust them with our welfare. I might even argue that deceptions like this insidiously contribute to the dangerous debate over the safety of the measles vaccination. When fraud and chicanery are everywhere to be found, it erodes trust in procedures that actually are trustworthy.

These supplements may be pulled and the companies fined, but will anyone go to prison for, in essence, stealing billions of dollars from credulous customers? Highly, highly doubtful. And so, it will continue on, in other guises.

As an honest business person, these kinds of antics should outrage you, because it all contributes to an atmosphere that makes YOUR advertising message automatically greeted with skepticism and YOUR integrity immediately questioned by a public grown so cynical that the only advertisements they “trust” are beer commercial fables showing giant horses rescuing small dogs.

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