A general record of my ongoing battle with all forms of nonsense.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

At Boots, it's 3 for the price of 2 on quackery

At 2pm on the 14th July, Skeptic Kash Farooq alerted me via Twitter to a quack medicine product on the Boots web site that he was going to make an Advertising Standards Authority complaint about.

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.


twaza (@wassabeee on twitter) said...

Fantastic work!

I wish I could have helped.

Alice said...

Wheeeeeeeeeeee! :-D

Wish I'd been in on it - but sounds like you didn't need me :-)

One thing though - if woo website claims are OK, how come they are not OK for chiros? Or, do lots of chiros still claim to treat colic, ear infections etc on their websites and it's only their leaflets you can do anything about?

Jo said...

Fine work there :)

What's the PDF programme? I'm making a note of these clever things to update an earlier blogpost on the cunning sneakery used by skeptics in finding and saving stuff.

The recent Twitter fun with someone calling a book lies and then distancing themselves from their own account was a beautiful example of this shared cunning.


Mike Hall said...

I hope the ASA do more than the MHRA did. Many of Boots' homeopathy products are covered by PLRs, which allow them to make claims for efficacy without any evidence.

This is a 'grandfather clause' which allows products sold with claims of efficacy before 1968 to continue to make those same claims, even though the Medicines Act 1968 would otherwise require some evidence.

When we complained to the MHRA about Boots making claims of efficacy for things like homeopathic teething gel, the MHRA dismissed the complaint saying that all the relevant products were covered by PLRs.

Anonymous said...

Well, I do feel a bit of a fraud, having only managed, erm, one entry before someone else finished it all off. Fingers crossed though!
Helena (@HelenaThomas)

Unknown said...

Fantastic. Great work!

Anonymous said...

When the ASA say “We regulate sales promotions, such as special offers, prize draws and competitions wherever they appear.” I read that to mean they regulate the promotion -- i.e. that you can actually get 3 for 2, that the prize is really on offer -- rather than the products in the promotion.

I hope I'm wrong, but did anyone check this?

Simon said...


The GCC regulate Chiropractic and had a rule that their members needed to stick to ASA guidelines. The fact that they were outside the ASA's remit was irrelevant as they were being regulated by the GCC. Also, complaints were submitted to Trading Standards who in some instances enforced.

The difficulty with Boots is that local Trading Standards officers simply aren't generally interested in tackling these sorts of claims and tend not to do much. The ASA is really who you need.

Simon said...

@Jo Program here: http://code.google.com/p/wkhtmltopdf/

Simon said...


Yes, I phoned the ASA to confirm before we started collating complaints.

Zeno said...

Fantastic work, everyone!

I had the same concern as Anonymous, but glad you checked!


I thought I might have to compile it on my Ubuntu box, rather than my main PC, but there is a Windows installer.

Anonymous said...

Great work all.

I think it's really a mark on Boots' reputation as much as anything that they continue to peddle this rubbish, clearly just to boost profits.

My grandfather managed our home branch of the store for many years, being somewhat of an amateur chemist at home himself (mum often remembers, not so fondly, his cures for things made from the scary-looking bottles) and I went to university in Nottingham, where the company started and continues to carry out, as far as I'm aware, decent research.

Look forward to the outcome of this; it is absurd that a self-proclaimed 'chemist' is selling magic water and magnets as unproven treatments for things.

Sean Ellis said...

Wonderful work. Kudos to all concerned.

Chris said...

I'm particularly fond of the statement on the box in the above image - "designed to help reduce symptoms of menopause - naturally" - is it designed or natural? It can't be both. Unless you believe in Intelligent Design. Oh, that's probably it...

Good work people :)

mconradi said...

Please could you post links to where we can find the full text of the ASA complaints? I'm sure they deserve circulation to a wider audience.

Simon said...


I will do following the ASA's ruling. We're confident in the complaints, but they were done in a hurry and with so many it is likely that we've made one or two mistakes. Rather not publish them for now.

David Bouvier said...

Just found youe site via Jack of Kent. So very glad you exist.

The Boots thing bugs me and probably bugs many of the research scientists and pharmcists they employ. My recollection is that the respectable medical research arm and the highstreet snake-oil arms split a while back.

To have some sympathy there is not much money in medicine retail, the supermarkets are carving up their margins on shampoos and stuff, and I guess the weirdy-bollocks is high margin.

But they do rely on their NHS pharmacy counters to draw volume of trade.

I find myself wondering if we/you could use the regulation of pharmacists as an angle. Of course, even for Pharmacy-only medicine nowadays you mostly wave a pack in the vague direction where a pharmacist recently stood (homeopathic regulatory cover I suppose).

But there are various open ended disrepute-type clauses in most professional regulations that could be a nuisance.

Or perhaps taking woo-devices up to the pharmacy counters and asking the pharmacist for advice would produce some interesting answers.

Surely something can be done...