Three paid-for Google search ads for Clinical Reviews, an online reviewer of food supplements, and the Clinical Reviews website www.clinical-reviews.com, seen on 21 April 2022:
a. The first paid-for search ad appeared under the search term “best vitamin D” and stated “UK’s Top 5 Vitamin D Ranked – Best 5 Vitamin D of 2021 Rank. This Is The Best Vitamin D Supplement In The UK 2021. Free Shipping. Money Back Guarantee”. The ad linked to a page titled “The Most Effective Vitamin D Supplements in 2021” on the Clinical Reviews website.
b. The second paid-for search ad appeared under the search term “best probiotics” and stated “Best 5 Probiotics UK 2022 – Don’t Waste Your Money. Bloating. Gut Health. Anxiety & More – Our Experts Reviewed The Best Probiotics For You! […]”. The ad linked to a page titled “The Most Effective Probiotic Supplements in 2021” on the Clinical Reviews website.
c. The third paid-for search ad appeared under the search term “best glucosamine” and stated “Best 5 Glucosamine Ranked 2022 – Top 5 Glucosamine Brands. Glucosamine is One Of The Best Solutions For Pain, Arthirits, Joints & More. Don’t waste your money! Here are the top 5 Glucosamine supplements in 2022. Scientifically Reviewed. […] Top 5. Access The Top 5 Ranking Products Find Which Work Here”. The ad linked to a page titled “The most effective Joint & Arthritis Supplements in 2021” on the Clinical Reviews website.
d. The top of the page on the Clinical Reviews website for “The Most Effective Vitamin D Supplements in 2021”, “The Most Effective Probiotic Supplement in 2021” and “The most effective Joint & Arthritis Supplements in 2021”, linked to from ads (a) to (c), featured small text that stated “SPONSORED ADVERTISING CONTENT”. Each page contained information about the relevant supplement type including advice on how to choose between the range of products on the market. A section titled “What Should I Look For” discussed factors such as desirable ingredients, potency, efficacy and customer service. Another section headed “What Should I Avoid” included text that warned website visitors that some products on the market were poorly formulated, and that fake online reviews of food supplements were very prevalent.
Under the heading “How We Assessed The Top 5 Supplements”, each review page featured text that stated “Each of our reviews go through a strict analysis and comparison test. We study the ingredients, effectiveness, and manufacturing to understand the quality of the product. Furthermore, we evaluate customer reviews, value for money”. The pages then gave their “Top 5” list. In each, a BetterVits product was placed in the top-ranked spot with an “A+ Grade” and a “TOTAL RANKING” of 9.7 out of ten, based on several hundred votes. Each of the five products was scored out of ten on “Ingredient safety”, “Potency & estimated efficacy”, “Value”, “Return Policy” and “Overall customer happiness”. On each page, underneath a heading that stated “THE BOTTOM LINE”, further text explained that their decision to place the relevant BetterVits product in the top spot had been reached via consideration of their formulation, quality of ingredients, reasonable price, or the brand’s 60 day money back guarantee. The pages then included a link that stated “SHOP NOW” that directed website visitors to the homepage of the BetterVits website.
Small text on each page’s footer stated “We may receive compensation from some of the companies whose products are featured on this website. As a result, we receive payment when you purchase a product using the links on this website. This website is owned and operated by the same company that has ownership interest in certain products featured on this website. This compensation and our ownership interest may affect how and where products appear on the site, including the order in which they appear. This site does not include and rate all products in each category.”
Further text on the page’s footer stated “DISCLAIMER” and clicking it led website visitors to a page of the same heading with text including “We would [...] like to make you aware that Clinical-Reviews.com and its owners have a compensatory or proprietary relationship with some of the product manufacturers featured on this website. Clinical-Reviews.com and its owners, therefore, benefit and receive a commission from the sale of certain products featured on this website.”
IssueThe ASA challenged whether the ads falsely implied that the marketer was acting for purposes outside its business and did not make their commercial intent clear.
BetterCo Ltd t/a BetterVits & Clinical Reviews (BetterVits) confirmed that they owned and operated the Clinical Reviews website and had placed the paid-for search ads that linked to it.
They highlighted the text that stated “SPONSORED ADVERTISING CONTENT” at the top of each review page, as well as the small text on the pages’ footer that included “This website is owned and operated by the same company that has ownership interest in certain products featured” and also referred to the similar text visitors were linked to by clicking the text that stated “DISCLAIMER”. They told us that those elements had been included to inform consumers that the website was an ad, and that its owners had a commercial interest in the sale of the products it featured.
However, they added that, because of the ASA’s investigation, they were conducting an internal review of their advertising approach. They suggested various changes that they were willing to make, including adding further labels to the review pages to indicate that the Clinical Reviews website was an ad for BetterVits, along with more prominent text that explicitly stated that BetterVits and Clinical Reviews had the same beneficial owner.
The CAP Code stated that marketing communications must not falsely claim or imply that the marketer was acting for purposes outside its trade, business, craft or profession. It further stated that marketing communications must make clear their commercial intent if that was not obvious from the context.
The ASA considered that the paid-for Google search ads (a) to (c) were placed under search terms that would frequently be used by consumers who, while generally interested in buying vitamin D, probiotic, or glucosamine supplements, were looking for specific product recommendations from an authoritative source. We considered the name “Clinical Reviews” gave the impression that the website provided independent reviews that were grounded in medical expertise and robust scientific evidence, including the findings of clinical trials or the results of rigorous product testing. We considered that consumers would not expect the website to be owned and operated by a supplement brand whose products it featured.
Additionally, ads (a) to (c) included claims that Clinical Reviews had “reviewed” or “ranked” the “best” or “top 5” supplement products available. Ads (b) and (c) both featured text that stated “Don’t waste your money!” and ad (c) featured the further text “Find Which Work Here”. We considered those elements reinforced the impression created by the name “Clinical Reviews” by alluding to product testing, and by suggesting the site aimed to promote informed consumer choice. In the cases of ads (b) and (c), we further considered that consumers would interpret their additional respective text that stated “Scientifically Reviewed” and “Our Experts […]” as emphasising that the site provided unbiased, objective comparisons between a range of supplement products based on scientific evidence, extensive research and independent scientific expertise.
We therefore considered that consumers who clicked on them would land on the linked review pages under the impression they were visiting an independent reviews website. The review pages themselves featured detailed, non-product-specific introductions that discussed the health benefits of taking the relevant supplement type, referred to the findings of scientific research, and suggested criteria by which consumers should choose specific products under the headings “What To Look For?” and “What Should I Avoid”. We considered that those elements positioned the page as an independent educational resource or buyer’s guide. Furthermore, various other aspects of the review pages, including the “top 5” lists’ numerical ratings of featured products across various categories, and the claimed numbers of “Votes”, gave the impression that the reviews, and the lists’ ordering, reflected the results of genuine research and product testing, as well as customer surveys. However, we understood that was not the case, and BetterVits did not provide any evidence to support that it was.
The Clinical Reviews website was owned and operated by BetterCo Ltd. We understood that every review page on the Clinical Reviews website placed a BetterVits product in the number one spot of the “Top 5” list and gave comparatively negative reviews to competitors’ products. The review pages, underneath their review of the top ranked BetterVits product, also included a link that directed visitors to the relevant product listing on the BetterVits website, with the purpose of increasing traffic on that page.
We considered that the measures the advertiser had taken in an attempt to make the website’s commercial intent clear, including the “SPONSORED ADVERTISING CONTENT” label, the small print and the page headed “Disclaimer”, were insufficient to counter the overall effect of the site’s content, layout and name. These all gave the false impression that Clinical Reviews was an independent reviews website. We considered that the advertiser’s proposed changes would also not be sufficient to counter that overall impression.
Because the ads all presented Clinical Reviews as an independent reviews website, when that was not the case, we concluded that they did not make their commercial intent clear and falsely implied that BetterCo Ltd was acting for purposes outside its business.
Ads (a), (b), (c), and (d) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 2.1 2.1 Marketing communications must be obviously identifiable as such. 2.3 2.3 Marketing communications must not falsely claim or imply that the marketer is acting as a consumer or for purposes outside its trade, business, craft or profession; marketing communications must make clear their commercial intent, if that is not obvious from the context. (Recognition of marketing communications), 3.1 3.1 Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so. (Misleading advertising) and 3.9 3.9 Marketing communications must state significant limitations and qualifications. Qualifications may clarify but must not contradict the claims that they qualify. (Qualification).
The ads must not appear again in their current form. We told BetterCo Ltd t/a BetterVits & Clinical Reviews to ensure their ads made their commercial intent clear and did not falsely claim or imply they were acting for purposes outside their trade, for example by presenting websites over which they had control, as independent review websites, including in paid-for search ads.