A poster for the EM Radiation Research Trust was seen in a men's toilet facility at a motorway service station in August 2011. The ad featured an image of a mobile phone in the front pocket of a pair of jeans and text stated "Your future is in your hands Medical experts are warning men not to keep their mobile phones in their pockets as this can have a direct effect on their fertility".
Five complainants challenged whether the claim that carrying a mobile phone in a pocket could have an effect on male fertility could be substantiated.
EM Radiation Research Trust (EM Radiation) stated that the background to the issue went back to a report published in 2000. They stated that, although the report concluded that mobile phone use did not put public health at risk, it did state that there was some preliminary evidence that outputs of mobile phones had the potential to cause a "subtle biological effect" and that "in some cases people's wellbeing may be adversely affected". They stated that the report therefore recommended a "precautionary approach" to mobile phone use.
They stated that, after many years of discussion, debate and argument with the Health Protection Agency (HPA), the agency had yet to take any precautionary measures and had not warned the public of the possible dangers of mobile phone use. They stated that there had been thousands of scientific studies showing the biological damage being done by mobile phones and that, as a result of passing this evidence to the European Commission, European governments and government agencies, some European countries had started taking a more precautionary approach by reducing the levels of emissions allowed from masts and recommending restricted use of Wifi. They stated that some of these countries were also starting to fund further research of their own into the subject. They added that the Council of Europe had "recommended that restrictions be put in place on the use of mobile phones and access to the internet in all schools across the continent to protect young children from harmful radiation".
They also stated that some mobile phone manufacturers included warnings in their manuals which advised that the users should not hold the device next to their bodies and provided extracts from one of those manuals.
They believed that there were two areas of high risk when using a mobile phone. The first was when a mobile phone was held directly against the body, such as against the head when making a call and the second was near to the male genitals, when the phone was stored in a trouser pocket. They stated that the intention of the campaign was to bring this matter to the public's attention in a serious but light-hearted manner and that they believed it was not over-the-top or alarmist. They believed that the use of the word "can", rather than "will" in the sentence "Medical experts are warning men not keep their mobile phones in their pockets as this can have a direct effect of their fertility" made clear that it was a precautionary approach and that given the overwhelming evidence of harm, they believed this type of approach was not alarmist.
They stated that the lack of action taken by the HPA to warn members of the public that precautions should be taken with regard to mobile phone use was also inconsistent with the action being taken by the Swiss Government, which was informing the public that non-ionising radiation from mobile phones was harmful to health.
They provided a number of published studies, trials and articles which examined the impacts of radiofrequency electromagnetic field exposure, including at the levels found in mobile phones, on human health, sperm quality and fertility.
The ASA considered that the average consumer would interpret the claim "Medical experts are warning men not to keep their mobile phones in their pockets as this can have a direct effect on their fertility" as a claim that there was general medical consensus, based on reliable clinical evidence, that keeping a mobile phone in a trouser pocket could have a direct effect on male fertility. We noted EM Radiation had supplied details of published articles, clinical trials, laboratory studies and reports on the effects of radio frequency electromagnetic field exposure on fertility, and noted these included in-vivo trials on the impact of exposure to mobile phone radiation on the fertility of insects and animals, and the examination of sperm quality in human males who had regular exposure to radio frequency electromagnetic field exposure, including that emitted by mobile phones. We noted many of those trials reported a correlation between the electromagnetic radiation emitted by mobile phones and sperm quality and/or fertility, and that in some instances the studies concluded that there was a direct causal link. However, we considered that whilst some of the trials were conducted under controlled conditions, EM Radiation had not demonstrated that their conclusions were widely accepted within the medical community, as implied by the claim made in the ad.
We further considered that the claim that there was a link between mobile phones being kept in pockets and problems with male fertility was likely to cause fear and distress in male consumers and considered that this was exacerbated by the targeting of the ads inside the men's toilets in service stations. We noted the intention of EM Radiation was to raise awareness of what they believed to be a potential risk for consumers and that they had not wanted to cause deliberate and unnecessary concern. However, because the claim highlighted an opinion that was not widely accepted within the medical community and presented it as "fact", we concluded that the ad was likely to cause unjustifiable distress.
The ad breached CAP Code rules 3.1 3.1 Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so. 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. (Misleading advertising) and 4.2 4.2 Marketing communications must not cause fear or distress without justifiable reason; if it can be justified, the fear or distress should not be excessive. Marketers must not use a shocking claim or image merely to attract attention. (Harm and offence).
The ad should not appear again in its current form. We told the EM Radiation Research Trust to ensure references to one side of a controversial debate were clearly referenced as such.