In guidance issued last week, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) sets out what advertisers can say about their products, ingredients contained and links to health, especially in light of the ongoing pandemic.
“Ads for such products cannot make any explicit or implicit references to COVID-19, coronavirus, viruses, flu (or any other adverse health condition), or any of the symptoms of such conditions,” says ASA.
“Implicit references could include using phrases that suggest a product could be particularly useful to remaining healthy during the pandemic, such as “use our product in these difficult times” or “#lockdownhealth”.
Similarly, ASA adds that while it was true that doctors and scientists were investigating vitamins or minerals’ role in treating COVID-19, referencing this fact in an ad for a food product implies that the product could help to prevent or treat the disease.
The instructions come as ASA and other advertising authorities in Europe face an increase in advertisements and marketing communications that unlawfully highlights health benefits that substances in foods, drinks and food supplements allegedly can provide.
In May this year, Manchester-based ‘PCK SKIN’ trading as ‘SkinSpaceUK’ found itself in hot water over a promotional email that had the subject line “40% off! In the fight against viruses!"
Text in the body of the email stated, “Its [sic] time to boost your immunity! In the fight against viruses! Book in for your vitamin D & B12 shots! Supports your immune system, lung function and aids faster recovery from illness & viruses!".
ASA pointed out that all licensed forms of injectable vitamin D and injectable vitamin B12 were prescription-only medicines and its advertising to the general public was prohibited.
The Authority also said of the email’s text that “In the context of a global pandemic of coronavirus/COVID-19 consumers were likely to understand that “viruses” included coronavirus.
“The ad gave the impression to recipients that the vitamin D and vitamin B12 injections being sold were effective in helping to prevent or treat coronavirus/COVID-19,” ASA said.
In March, Italy’s Competition and Market Authority (AGCM) ordered an online retailer to stop using preventative claims against the coronavirus to sell supplement, cosmetic and detergent products.
In a statement, the Authority said it had started an investigation into the activities of the Naples-based website ‘carlitashop,’ and its related Instagram pages, ‘carlitashop_online’ and ‘theCarlitadolce.’
Both pages promoted its ‘Supplement Antivirale Manuka,’ that uses the hashtag ‘#coronavirus’ as well as statements describing the product’s antiviral capabilities and efficacy in tackling the COVID-19 virus.
Referencing immune benefits
In further guidance, ASA stated that advertisers can only make health claims about a food or ingredient if the claim is authorised on the EU Register of nutrition and health claims made on foods.
“A health claim relating to immune function is authorised in relation to a number of different substances, including vitamins B12 and C, selenium and iron: “[Nutrient] contributes to the normal function of the immune system,” ASA sets out.
“But it’s important to be careful when using the authorised claim in advertising, because the full meaning of the authorised claim must be communicated to consumers.
“That includes attributing the health benefit to the nutrient named in the authorised claim and not exaggerating or changing the meaning of the authorised claim.
“Marketers should read CAP’s advice on health claims for more information about these principles for using health claims,” ASA guidance adds.
The Authority adds that immune function-linked claims could not use wording that suggests the product, or its ingredients could improve or enhance immune system function
Wording that over-emphasised the role of certain nutrients in the normal functioning of the immune system would not be advised.
These include any references to “boosting,” “strengthening,” “stimulating,” or “optimising,” immune function as well as the word “normal,” when referring to immune function.
Other wording to avoid includes claims such as “vitamin C is important for immune function.” ASA states that the words “contributes to,” “helps,” or “supports,” are not to be used.
“Do take care with the word “immunity,” the Authority adds. “Using this instead of referencing ‘immune function’ could be understood to mean that consuming the product will provide immunity to a disease.”