Misleading Health Claims in COVID-19 Advertising
Feb 17, 2021 by Annie Ugurlayan, Assistant Director, and Laura Brett, Vice President, National Advertising Division
During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an explosion of challenges to health product advertisements that expressly or impliedly claim to protect consumers and their families from the coronavirus. Consumers rely on ads, especially those that claim a product will support their immune system or help ward off disease. When they hear these claims, they also expect that there is science that supports such claims.
Truth in advertising is important to protect consumers and help level the playing field for fair competition in the marketplace. This core concept becomes especially important when advertising health-related products, including over-the-counter drugs and dietary supplements.
COVID-19 has forced consumers to focus on their health and well-being, so it is no surprise that health-related advertising has also been a focus of competitor challenges at BBB National Programs this past year. Indeed, there has been a nearly 50 percent increase in competitor challenges concerning health-related advertising claims.
For example, there were multiple challenges to products touting health and wellness benefits for traditional over-the-counter drugs, as well as natural alternatives that purported to offer similar relief or alternative wellness benefits. Brands new to self-regulation participated in challenges, including makers of essential oils and natural cough remedies, both popular products in the burgeoning natural health and wellness marketplace.
Many of these product claims about wellness benefits required a review of complex issues and science-heavy claim substantiation, an encouraging indicator that brands take seriously the requirement that health-related advertising claims be supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence. The resulting decisions provide guidance on crafting truthful and accurate advertising for consumers so that health-related advertising claims are supported by science and competitors play by the same set of rules.
BBB National Programs’ National Advertising Division (NAD) and Direct Selling Self-Regulatory Council (DSSRC) have monitored the advertising landscape for decades, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, health-related claims, including those referencing the coronavirus, represented the greatest volume of challenges and cases received.
Once the pandemic began, government agencies sprang into action. Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have issued dozens of warning letters since spring 2020 about express and implied claims that products can treat or prevent COVID-19.
As the effects of the pandemic continue, NAD and DSSRC remain vigilant, with each increasing their monitoring for advertising touting COVID-19-related health benefits due to its prevalence. During 2020, 38 percent of NAD’s monitoring cases were brought against companies making health-related claims concerning their product’s ability to boost consumers’ immunity against, or otherwise protect them from, COVID-19. After releasing guidance for the direct-selling industry early in the year that urged caution regarding health-related claims made by direct sellers or their salesforces, DSSRC saw 98 COVID-19 related cases, primarily on social media platforms and primarily related to the dietary supplement industry.
Hope is on the horizon, with virus case counts and deaths going down, and COVID-19 vaccinations ramping up. BBB National Programs applauds the herculean efforts by researchers, producers, and regulators to get groundbreaking medical products – both preventative and for treatment – safely into the marketplace to combat the medical crisis.
The commitment we bring to this role is the same we’ve had for 50 years, to be champions for truth in advertising and ensure that consumers get truthful information about products that can support their health during this crisis.