The only problem was that the ASA does not regulate web site content. And this has been a problem stopping us from tackling Boots for some time. If Boots has false or unjustifiable claims to make about a product, they only seem to make them in areas where the ASA can’t touch them. They use packaging, point of sale materials and their web site to make their claims – all outside of the ASA’s remit. I’ve personally never seen widespread false claims made by Boots on posters, leaflets or in the press where the ASA can start issuing adjudications against them.
Whether this is a deliberate strategy by Boots, or just through chance alone I cannot be sure. But yesterday, they slipped up.
Kash had noticed that Boots had a 3 for the price of 2 offer “across all vitamins, complementary medicines and herbal products”. There are a couple of exceptions where the ASA will regulate claims made on the web. One is:
“We regulate sales promotions, such as special offers, prize draws and competitions wherever they appear.”
Boots appeared to have put their entire range of alternative health products – the products for which they regularly make unjustified claims of health benefits – fully within the remit of the Advertising Standards Authority.
I had no idea of how long this promotion would last, and with the ASA sometimes taking over a week to look at a case, I did not want the claims to fall out of remit before my complaint went in. Boots may have seen the tweets about them and realised they needed to withdraw the promotion. For the best chance of success, the complaint had to go in by the start of business the next morning.
I started going through the claims and realised that there was no possible way I could get through them by myself. Boots had 679 products in the range, many of which were making clearly unjustifiable claims. And in comes the power of Twitter. With a couple of Tweets, I suddenly had a small army of helpers.
I created a shared Google Spreadsheet in which a team of 9 or 10 people started adding URLs from the Boots web site and copying and pasting next to them the unjustifiable claims made about the product. With a little help from technical wizard @tommorris answering my call for help, I found a program that would automatically download the large number of web pages and print them to a local PDF to hold as evidence.
Watching what was happening on the Google Spreadsheet was awe-inspiring. When I started letting people into the document, there were 80 URLs copied and pasted into the list. By the time I got 15 more URLs into it, @the_beacon, @richardtomsett, @HelenaThomas, @dellybean, @kashfarooq, @nwoolhouseuk, @cherryblack, @RoisinThomas and @kingmuskar had pretty much copied and pasted all of the claims and were now waiting on me.
By the end of the evening, we’d sent off complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority about 107 Boots products.
The claims they were making varied from shocking – claiming that a homeopathic remedy is “to relieve the pain of teething.” To the bizarre – a magnet which you put in your knickers which they claimed “helps to reduce or completely eliminate the symptoms of menopause” – something one of my helpers described as a “Fanny Magnet”. There were some less serious claims such as listing “30c Aconitum napellus” as an active ingredient on a product when I can say with 99.999999999999999999999999999999999994% certainty that if manufactured carefully contains no Aconitum napellus (and I worked that number out, it’s not just a guess).
But my helpers continued after I finished. @nwoolhouseuk, @ScepticLetters,
@GDLockUK, @kashfarooq and @the_beacon together sent in a second complaint with another 133 products listed. @nwoolhouseuk was still going at 1:30 in the morning, and @ScepticLetters finally finished it off at 4am.
Boots will now hopefully be held to account. For years, whether accidentally or by design, they been keeping the misleading claims they make about their products just beyond the remit of the ASA. One slip up, and with excellent teamwork we caught them out in one night with a total of 240 complaints.