Summary of Council decision:
Two issues were investigated, both of which were Upheld.
A paid-for ad from a store on the AliExpress website, www.aliexpress.com, seen on 27 July 2023, displayed alongside product listings which were returned following a search for “belly button slimming patches”. The ad included the headline text “Lose weight” with smaller text underneath that stated “Accidentally thin”. A photo on the left showed the torso of an overweight woman with text underneath that stated “before”. A photo on the right-hand side showed a woman, shown full length from behind wearing only pants, whose spine, shoulder blades and ribs were very prominent, and with very thin arms and legs. The price and the text “Slimming Detox Lose Weight Prod...” were shown underneath.
The ASA challenged whether the ad:
1. was irresponsible, because the featured model appeared unhealthily thin; and
2. made medicinal claims for an unlicensed product.
1. & 2. Shenzhen Guangming District Kangshuo E-Commerce Firm t/a Health Support Store did not respond to the ASA’s enquiries.
Alibaba Group, who owned the AliExpress website, said they had removed the ad. They had also flagged the image to prevent it, or similar images, being used in ads by other businesses on their platform. They would pay additional attention to ads relating to weight loss products in future, and were looking further into the requirements of the Code in relation to the use of medicinal claims for unlicensed products. They further confirmed that they were planning to announce a ban on product listings involving improper or misleading advertising for medicines, medical devices, health-related products and beauty products on AliExpress and were in the process of reviewing their internal procedures accordingly.
The ASA was concerned by Shenzhen Guangming District Kangshuo E-Commerce Firm’s lack of response and apparent disregard for the Code, which was a breach of CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 1.7 (Unreasonable delay). We reminded them of their responsibility to respond promptly to our enquiries and told them to do so in future.
The ad included a photo of a woman who was so thin she appeared skeletal and malnourished. The image was presented as the “after” result of using the advertised product to lose weight and be “Accidentally thin”. It was displayed to users of AliExpress who had searched for products to help with slimming.
The ASA considered the ad had the effect of normalising the aspiration to be dangerously thin, and encouraging those who saw it to have that aspiration. We further considered it encouraged people to purchase unlicensed and potentially unsafe products (see below) to achieve extreme weight loss. We concluded the ad was socially irresponsible.
On that point, the ad breached CAP Code (Edition12) rule 1.3 (Responsible advertising).
The CAP Code stated that medicines must have a licence from the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency), VMD (Veterinary Medicines Directorate) or under the auspices of the EMA (European Medicines Agency) before they were marketed.
We noted that unlicensed medicines had not been assessed for efficacy, quality or safety.
The MHRA confirmed that, because the ad made medicinal claims for the product, it fell within the definition of a medicinal product. The product was not licensed by the MHRA and therefore was an unlicensed medicine.
The ad claimed that the product would cause weight loss, which was a medicinal claim; the product therefore was a medicinal product which must be licensed. Because the ad promoted an unlicensed medicine, we concluded that it breached the Code.
On that point, the ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 12.1 (Medicines, medical devices, health-related products and beauty products).
The ad must not appear again in the form complained of. We told Shenzhen Guangming District Kangshuo E-Commerce Firm t/a Health Support Store to ensure the images used in their ads were prepared responsibly and did not portray dangerously or unhealthily thin people. We also told them not to advertise unlicensed medicines to the public. We referred the matter to CAP’s Compliance team.