Summary of Council decision:
Three issues were investigated, all of which were Upheld.
Claims in the product description for a book called "Melanie's Marvelous Measles" on www.amazon.co.uk stated "Melanie's Marvelous Measles was written to educate children on the benefits of having measles and how you can heal from them naturally and successfully. Often today, we are being bombarded with messages from vested interests to fear all diseases in order for someone to sell some potion or vaccine, when, in fact, history shows that in industrialized countries, these diseases are quite benign and, according to natural health sources, beneficial to the body. Having raised three children vaccine-free and childhood disease-free, I have experienced many times when my children's vaccinated peers succumb to the childhood diseases they were vaccinated against. Surprisingly, there were times when my unvaccinated children were blamed for their peers' sickness. Something which is just not possible when they didn't have the diseases at all. Stephanie Messenger lives in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, and devotes her life to educating people about vaccine dangers and supporting families in their natural health choices. She has the support of many natural therapists and natural-minded doctors".
The complainant challenged whether:
1. the implied claim that measles was benign; and
2. the implied claims that vaccination was unnecessary and unsafe
were misleading and could be substantiated.
3. The complainant also challenged whether the ad discouraged essential treatment for a condition for which medical supervision should be sought.
Amazon EU Sarl, t/a amazon.co.uk, (Amazon) explained that the "product detail" page of their website, including the text in the product description, was created automatically from a catalogue data feed supplied by a third-party data provider. They said the product description replicated verbatim the first three paragraphs of text printed on the back cover of the paperback edition of the book, an image of which could also be viewed on the web page.
Amazon stated that the product description presented a context to and outline of the book, together with a brief biography of the author, and was provided to enable customers to make an informed purchasing decision. The views and opinions included in the product description were those of the author and did not necessarily reflect Amazon's own perspective. They said they were keen to ensure that their customers were able to post reviews on the website of products sold, and noted that the reviews for the book indicated that the author's views on the subject matter of the book appeared to be shared by a significant minority of customers.
Amazon did not consider that the text under investigation fell within the remit of the CAP Code. They pointed out that the claims were a verbatim reproduction of text on the book's cover, and stated that as such they were editorial content only. Further, they argued that the claims were not directly connected with the supply or transfer of goods, but rather a reproduction of third-party information which was itself an intrinsic part of the product sold. In their view, that information was analogous to user-generated content, which would fall outside the remit of the CAP Code unless it was "adopted" by the marketer within its marketing communications. They stated that they had not adopted the text and that it would be understood as having been provided by the publisher or another third party, rather than as making claims on behalf of Amazon itself.
The ASA noted Amazon's reasons for considering that the claims did not fall within the remit of the CAP Code. We considered that the claims, by providing information about the book, were intended to influence consumers' purchasing decisions and, as such, were directly connected with the supply or transfer of goods. We acknowledged that the text was replicated from the back cover of the book and had appeared on the site by way of an automatic feed from a third party, but did not agree that the claims were therefore analogous to user-generated content not adopted by the marketer. We did not consider that the process by which the text had appeared on the website relieved Amazon of its responsibility to ensure that the content - which we understood they were able to alter or remove if necessary - complied with the CAP Code.
1. & 2. Upheld
We understood that measles, as an infectious disease, was a serious medical condition which could lead to severe complications or even death, including when contracted in Western Europe. Vaccination was recommended by the World Health Organisation and the NHS as an effective way of preventing measles.
We noted that the text related to a book entitled "Melanie's Marvelous Measles" and appeared beneath the heading "Product Description" and the subheading "About the Author". However, the passage as a whole went beyond a description of the author's background. The first sentence of the paragraph in question stated that "Melanie's Marvelous Measles" had been written "to educate children on the benefits of having measles ..." and subsequently indicated that the author of the book had extensive experience in the field. On that basis, we considered that the text adopted an authoritative tone likely to influence consumers' understanding of the disease. Furthermore, although we acknowledged that the text was intended to reflect the subjective views and experiences of the author, we considered that some of the claims were presented in factual terms inconsistent with that approach. We were particularly concerned that the statements "... to educate ... on the benefits of having measles and how you can heal from them naturally and successfully" and "... history shows that in industrialized countries, these diseases are quite benign and, according to natural health sources, beneficial to the body" would be taken by consumers to be objective claims that were supported by robust evidence. We therefore considered that the ad presented implied objective claims regarding the danger posed by measles and the necessity and safety of vaccination that went beyond expressions of opinion. Because we had not seen substantiation for those claims, we concluded that they were misleading.
On that point, the ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 3.1 Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so. and 3.6 3.6 Subjective claims must not mislead the consumer; marketing communications must not imply that expressions of opinion are objective claims. (Misleading advertising) and 3.7 3.7 Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation. (Substantiation).
The CAP Code stipulated that marketers must not discourage essential treatment for conditions for which medical supervision should be sought. We noted that measles would fall into that category because it was an infectious disease that could give rise to serious complications. For the reasons described above, we considered that consumers were likely to understand from the ad that measles was not always a dangerous disease and could in fact be beneficial to the body, and that vaccination could be unnecessary in industrialised countries. We considered that those consumers reading the ad and understanding it to present factual information about the disease would be less likely to have their children vaccinated as a result. We therefore concluded that the ad was irresponsible because it discouraged essential treatment for measles.
On that point, the ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules
Marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society.
(Responsible advertising) and
Marketers must not discourage essential treatment for conditions for which medical supervision should be sought. For example, they must not offer specific advice on, diagnosis of or treatment for such conditions unless that advice, diagnosis or treatment is conducted under the supervision of a suitably qualified health professional. Accurate and responsible general information about such conditions may, however, be offered (see rule 12.11).
Health professionals will be deemed suitably qualified only if they can provide suitable credentials, for example, evidence of: relevant professional expertise or qualifications; systems for regular review of members' skills and competencies and suitable professional indemnity insurance covering all services provided; accreditation by a professional or regulatory body that has systems for dealing with complaints and taking disciplinary action and has registration based on minimum standards for training and qualifications. (Medicines, medical devices, health-related products and beauty products).
The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told Amazon to ensure that their marketing communications did not imply that expressions of opinion were objective claims and did not discourage essential treatment for conditions for which medical supervision should be sought.