The promise of health, weight loss or increased strength greets visitors at many health and supplement stores. Advertisers use images of muscular men and slender women, combined with carefully crafted copy, to convince consumers to buy their products.
Words and shapes in bright and vivid colors decorate product packaging that promises increased bulk and strength. Among the myriad of promising miracle products, you might find “testosterone boosting” supplements. A consumer can now purchase a “legit” testosterone booster from South African retail stores.
In South Africa, regulations on labeling do not allow advertisers to use images that may create a false impression of the product. The Consumer Protection Act makes it clear that suppliers cannot mislead consumers. The law also prohibits suppliers from making false claims about a product.
But that hasn’t stopped advertisers from making dubious claims. In a recent article I unpacked the claims made in an ad for a testosterone boosting product.
The alleged active ingredient in some of these testosterone boosting products is D-aspartic acid. The main advertising claim is that a consumer’s testosterone level will increase after consuming a product containing this amino acid. The implied promise is that an increase in testosterone will provide muscle and strength gain. Stronger muscles, in turn, promise to improve in sports. One of these testosterone boosting products even claims to be science-based and that research was involved.
Claims that something is clinically proven and that science and research are involved require proof. The Advertising Regulatory Council South Africa, for example, requires advertisers to hold evidence of their advertising claims. Advertisements must be truthful and must not mislead consumers. Advertisers are not allowed to abuse and misrepresent search results. They are not allowed to do scientific claims for a product if it is not based on such a basis.
My recent article shows how advertising claims for a testosterone-boosting product mislead consumers.
The advertiser claimed that the supplement would increase a consumer’s testosterone levels. The advertiser was referring to a scientific article as proof of the testosterone boosting ability of the product.
Further examination of this research showed that a small group of 23 men received a daily dose for 12 days of a product containing D-aspartic acid. The control group of 20 men received a placebo. The group that received D-aspartic acid showed an increase in total testosterone after 12 days. Their testosterone went down three days after their last dose on day 12.
The group’s average total testosterone level increased from 4.5 nanograms per milliliter at the start to 6.4 nanograms per milliliter on day 12. Advertisers used the ratio of this increase on day 12 to claim that an increase of 42 % of testosterone is possible.
What they didn’t say was that the study took place at an infertility clinic. The participants had low testosterone levels at the start. The average increase of 1.9 nanograms per milliliter of testosterone seems remarkable when looking at the percentage difference. This increase, however, was still within the normal testosterone range for men of this age.
Advertisers who use this scientific article as the basis of their advertising claim to abuse and distort science.
There is not enough knowledge about D-aspartic acid and its effect on increasing testosterone levels. The proof of a little small, short-term studies are insufficient to conclude that D-aspartic acid can produce a clinically significant increase in testosterone levels.
Some advertisers also make misleading claims about weight loss supplements or products.
In Case, the Advertising Regulatory Council ruled that an advertisement was misleading when it promised improved educational outcomes. The advertiser was unable to provide sufficient evidence that the supplement would improve a child’s grades in school. In other Case, the Advertising Regulator Board has ruled that a well-known supplement supplier misled consumers. Advertising claims were that the product was “thermogenic” (burns fat) and would aid weight loss. The Advertising Regulatory Council ruled that the allegations were without merit.
Scientific claims that a product is the result of research do not necessarily mean that it works or is safe. It also does not mean that the manufacturer has tested their own product in a clinical trial.
Clinical tests are very expensive, go through several stages and can take several years. The final stage of a clinical trial requires a manufacturer to include a large group of participants to see if the product works as expected.
An advertiser who directly or indirectly claims that a supplement can boost testosterone, aid weight loss, or improve school performance must have proof of those claims. Consumers are entitled to ask advertisers to provide proof of their claims.
Scientific articles on the ingredients of their products are not enough. Scientific evidence must relate to the specific product an advertiser is promoting. The evidence must be objective and open to independent scrutiny.
Consumers can file a complaint with the Advertising Regulatory Council about advertisements they consider misleading. Alternatively, one can also contact the Ombudsman for consumer goods and services for to complain on misleading labelling.