How false advertising misleads consumers in South Africa

A muscular man working out with weights in a gym
Advertisers use images of muscular men and slender women to convince consumers to buy their products. Getty Images

The promise of health, losing weight, or increasing strength greets visitors to many health and supplement shops. Advertisers use images of muscular men and slender women, combined with carefully crafted text, to convince consumers to buy their products.

Words and shapes in bold and bright colours decorate the packaging of products that promise an increase in bulk and strength. Among the myriad of miracle promising products, you may find “testosterone boosting” supplements. A consumer can now buy a “legitimate” testosterone booster in South African retail stores.

In South Africa, regulations about labelling don’t allow advertisers to use pictures that are likely to create a false impression of the product. The Consumer Protection Act clearly states suppliers may not mislead consumers. The Act also bars suppliers from making false claims about a product.

But this has not stopped advertisers from making dubious claims. In a recent article I unpacked claims made in an advertisement 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 a gain in muscle and strength. Stronger muscles, in turn, hold the promise of improving in sport. One such testosterone boosting product even claims to be based on science and that research was involved.

Regulating advertising

Claims that something is clinically proven, and that science and research are involved, require proof. The Advertising Regulatory Board of South Africa, for example, requires that advertisers must hold the evidence for their advertising claims. Advertisements must be truthful and may not mislead consumers. Advertisers are not allowed to misuse and misrepresent research results. They are not allowed to make science claims for a product if it does not have such a basis.

My recent article shows how advertising claims about a testosterone boosting product mislead consumers.

The advertiser claimed that the supplement would boost a consumer’s testosterone levels. The advertiser referred to a scientific paper as the evidence for the product’s testosterone boosting ability.

A closer look at 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 the D-aspartic acid showed an increase in total testosterone after 12 days. Their testosterone decreased three days after their last dose on day 12.

The group’s average level of total testosterone increased from 4.5 nanograms per millilitre at the start, to 6.4 nanograms per millilitre on day 12. The advertisers used the ratio of this increase on day 12 to claim that a 42% increase in testosterone is possible.

What they didn’t say is 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 millilitre of testosterone appears remarkable if one looks at the percentage difference. This increase was, however, still within the normal testosterone range of men of that age.

Advertisers who use this scientific paper as the basis for their advertising claims misuse and misrepresent science.

There isn’t enough knowledge about D-aspartic acid and its effect on the increase in testosterone levels. The evidence from a few small and short duration studies is not enough to conclude that D-aspartic acid can produce a clinically significant increase in testosterone levels.

Some advertisers also make misleading claims about supplements or weight-loss products.

In one case, the Advertising Regulatory Board ruled that an advertisement was misleading when it promised improved academic performance. The advertiser was not able to provide adequate proof that the supplement would improve a child’s marks at school. In another case, the Advertising Regulator Board ruled that a well-known supplier of supplements misled consumers. The advertising claims were that the product was “thermogenic” (fat-burning) and that it would aid weight loss. The Advertising Regulatory Board ruled that the claims were without substance.

Protecting consumers

Science-based claims that a product is the result of research does not necessarily mean that it works or that it is safe. It also does not mean that the manufacturer tested their own product in a clinical trial.

Clinical trials are very expensive, go through several stages, and can take several years. The last stage of a clinical trial requires a manufacturer to include a large group of participants to see if the product works as planned.

An advertiser that makes direct or indirect claims that a supplement can boost testosterone, help with weight-loss, or improve school performance must have proof for these claims. Consumers are within their rights to ask advertisers to supply the evidence for their claims.

Scientific articles about ingredients in their products are not sufficient. The scientific evidence must be about the specific product that an advertiser promotes. The evidence must be objective and open for independent scrutiny.

Consumers can lodge a complaint with the Advertising Regulatory Board about advertisements that they regard as misleading. Alternatively, one can also approach the Consumer Goods and Services Ombud to complain about misleading labelling.

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