Why you should take "clinically tested" claims with a pinch of salt: Internet Scambusters #1,012
Manufacturers and advertisers are only too keen to tell you a product has been "clinically tested" or "clinically proven."
But without more information, those phrases are meaningless. What was tested? When? How? And by whom?
These are the questions you need to ask or research when those words hit your eyes. Without good answers, the claims are meaningless, as we explain in this week's issue.
Let's get started…
It's Clinically Tested -- So What?
It's "clinically tested," so it must be effective, right? Nope. Well, what about "clinically proven" then? Nope.
At best, these and similar terms like "clinically approved" that are used on labels and in advertisements likely mean it won't kill or harm you.
But by themselves these terms really mean absolutely nothing, though you'll see them plastered all over the place, especially on cosmetics and some sports and nutrition products.
They could even have been "tested" or "proven" for a different use or potential allergic effect than the one you want them for.
This doesn't necessarily mean that using these words is a scam, but unless these claims are backed by scientific evidence or some other explanation of the tests, you should probably take them with a pinch of salt.
As one Twitter user put it, "'Clinically tested' means nothing. It means it's not poison, basically. Consumers get lied to over nuanced copy lines the legal department helped write all the time."
Or, as polymer science professor Robert Lochhead told the news site Business Insider, "Clinically approved means somewhere a doctor has put it on someone and said it's okay."
You don't know, for example, under what conditions a test took place, how many people took part, how long the study lasted or what the results of the test were. Or, indeed, whether a product has been tested on humans or animals. Testing on animals doesn't prove it will not harm humans -- plus, of course, a potential buyer might have ethical objections to the use of animals.
And, as far as we've been able to establish, there are no legal definitions for them and little in the way of general rules or guidance set by watchdog organizations like the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
The FTC does stipulate that advertisers must be able to support marketing claims with reliable scientific evidence. But, in the case of clinical testing, all that might mean was a product was tested on one person -- and they don't have to tell us the result!
After a recent case, the National Advertising Review Board (NARB) declared that "clinically proven" should mean that any tests are "meaningful" but that doesn't seem to take the issue much further.
And in another NARB case last year, a diet food company was criticized for applying the "clinically approved" term to its products when it really applied to the firm's overall weight loss plan.
Lochhead also says that what's important in labeling these products is the word that follows "clinically." So, for example, a claim that a product was "clinically proven to heal wounds" would make a product a drug because it has potential to impact the body, which would make it a drug, calling for FDA approval.
Beyond this, advertisers are not legally required to give answers to the questions we raised above.
For instance, a manufacturer is perfectly able to commission a study involving a sample of the population that they already believe will give them the required result that will help promote their product.
There are, however, well documented requirements for proper clinical trials -- the ones that do test products within a stipulated, scientific framework, including defined conditions.
Usually, these are referred to as "scientific trials" and the results are generally published and may require what's called a "peer review" -- that is, the tests and results have been reviewed by relevant and competent professionals.
What You Can Do
Here are a few guidelines that will help you make buying decisions in the face of claims that a product has been clinically tested or proven:
- First, consider these words by themselves to be simply marketing terms and don't buy them solely on the basis of these claims.
- Check if there's any further information to back up or explain claims, either on the product labeling or the manufacturer's website.
- Look for small print qualifications such as "individual results may vary."
- Research the product more widely on the Internet to see if there have been any complaints about the product and about the experience of other users.
If you feel you've been misled, you can make a complaint to the FTC.
This Week's Scam Alerts
Coaching Refund: If you paid money for business coaching to My Online Business Education (MOBE), you may be entitled to a refund after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said it was returning more than $23 million to 37,000 subscribers who were allegedly misled about the firm's program. Refunds are being issued automatically.
It's Not Me: Staying with the FTC, there's a new bout of scam calls from impostors claiming to be the Commission's boss, Noah Phillips. The caller gives a supposed "badge" number as proof of identity and claims there's a warrant out for the victim's arrest. The only way out, says the scammer, is to pay by some untraceable means like cybercurrency or gift cards. The FTC doesn't do this, and Phillips certainly doesn't call individual consumers! Hang up.
Antivirus Racket: If you think paying for Internet security is already expensive, how will you feel when you get an email saying you just paid $280 for antivirus protection supposedly called "geek squad"? There is a legit outfit called Geek Squad (operated by Best Buy) but it's nothing to do with them. This email contains a phone number you're presumably supposed to call if you dispute the charge. We all know what likely happens next -- you'll be asked to provide personal banking details or other information. Just delete it.
That's it for today -- we hope you enjoy your week!