A sponsored link on Google for a cosmetic surgery clinic stated "Remove Your Stretch Marks".
The website for the clinic, www.sknclinics.co.uk, stated "Stretch Mark Removal Stretch marks don't have to be forever - treatment can reduce or eliminate the appearance of stretch marks".
The complainant challenged whether the claims "Remove Your Stretch Marks" and "eliminate the appearance of stretch marks" were misleading and could be substantiated, because she understood that stretch marks were impossible to remove.
Sk:n clinics (Sk:n) explained that most of their digital marketing was carried out by third-party suppliers. They stated that their website was maintained by one agency, whilst their Search Engine Optimisation and Pay-Per-Click advertising programs were managed by two other agencies. They explained that, until very recently, these agencies had been given a relatively large amount of freedom and that their management revolved around issues such as budgets and campaign direction. Sk:n highlighted, however, that they had recently recruited a Digital Marketing Manager and Executive to ensure that their third-party suppliers were managed more rigorously and that any changes to their digital campaigns were approved and signed-off centrally. They therefore hoped that that change would mitigate the risk of any further complaints regarding their advertising.
Sk:n acknowledged that not all stretch marks could be completely removed. They said, however, they offered the best treatments available which could improve the appearance of affected skin so it closely resembled normal skin surface patterns.
Sk:n said the terminology they used to promote their stretch mark treatments had been adopted in response to consumer behaviour and demand. They provided data from Google which stated that an average of 74,000 searches were performed per month globally for the phrase "stretch mark removal". Similarly, they highlighted that "remove stretch marks" and "getting rid of stretch marks" received a high number of searches per month at 40,500 and 74,000 respectively. They stated that, like many of their competitors, they had responded to consumers' search behaviour by bidding on key words and phrases such as "remove stretch marks", and included them in their online ads and their website. They said that ensured that sk:n maintained a strong online presence, particularly on search engine result pages.
Sk:n also asserted that they adopted such terminology to help those consumers who were looking for stretch mark treatments. They highlighted that individuals with stretch marks did not search Google for phrases such as "how can I improve the appearance of straie?", and instead used layman's terms such as "stretch mark removal". They stated that because consumers were using those keywords when searching for stretch mark treatments, and businesses were responding to that search behaviour and optimising their advertising campaigns by using them, those keywords had become accepted terminology in the health and beauty industry.
Sk:n also highlighted that any individual who, as a result of an ad, enquired about the treatments sk:n offered for stretch marks, would be fully informed about the procedure and the likely outcome. They explained that they had a seven step process which they followed for each client to manage their expectations with regard to a treatment and asserted that they "would not offer treatments which did not match the expectations of the individual patients".
The ASA understood that sk:n's treatments could reduce the appearance of stretch marks but did not remove them altogether. In fact, we noted that we were yet to see any evidence of a treatment for stretch marks that was able to remove them completely. We acknowledged that sk:n had adopted phrases such as "Remove Your Stretch Marks" and "eliminate the appearance of stretch marks" to meet the search demands of consumers and to ensure they had the same online presence as their competitors. We considered, however, that many consumers would not be aware of the available treatments for stretch marks or the efficacy of those treatments, and when using Google to search for phrases such as "stretch mark removal" might genuinely believe, or hope, that a treatment resulting in permanent removal existed. We therefore considered that consumers might not understand the meaning of the terminology used and might be encouraged to seek more information regarding a treatment because they misunderstood the outcome that could be achieved. We understood that sk:n's treatments for stretch marks did not remove them but instead improved their appearance, and we therefore concluded that the claims exaggerated the effectiveness of sk:n's treatments and were misleading.
The claims breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules
Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so.
(Misleading advertising), 3.7 (Substantiation),
Marketing communications must not mislead consumers by exaggerating the capability or performance of a product.
Objective claims must be backed by evidence, if relevant consisting of trials conducted on people. Substantiation will be assessed on the basis of the available scientific knowledge.
Medicinal or medical claims and indications may be made for a medicinal product that is licensed by the MHRA, VMD or under the auspices of the EMA, or for a CE-marked medical device. A medicinal claim is a claim that a product or its constituent(s) can be used with a view to making a medical diagnosis or can treat or prevent disease, including an injury, ailment or adverse condition, whether of body or mind, in human beings.
Secondary medicinal claims made for cosmetic products as defined in the appropriate European legislation must be backed by evidence. These are limited to any preventative action of the product and may not include claims to treat disease. (Medicines, medical devices, health-related products and beauty products).
The claims must not appear again in their current form. We told sk:n to not make claims unless they held robust evidence to substantiate them.