More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Harvard Health Ad Watch: When marketing puts your health at risk
by Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Harvard Health Blog
January 9, 2020

The goal of advertising is, of course, to catch your attention and sell you a product. But when it comes to health-related products, inaccuracies in advertising can be detrimental to your health.

Perhaps you’ve seen a Vitamin Water ad recently that touts the health benefits of Vitamin Water while seeming to discourage getting a flu shot as out of fashion. It originally appeared in 2011 but has mysteriously resurfaced online. The text of the ad states, “Flu shots are so last year,” and subheadings add “more vitamin C, more immunity, less snotty tissues.” The average customer seeing this ad could conclude that flu shots aren’t so great — in fact, that Vitamin Water is better for you than flu shots (and also better than getting the flu).

Vitamin Water won’t help against flu
I have to admit, the ad does catch your attention. But’s it’s an unfortunate and potentially dangerous approach for a number of reasons:
  • The flu killed an estimated 61,000 people in the US during the 2017–18 flu season (a record, according to the CDC) and up to 646,000 people worldwide; the flu shot could prevent many of these deaths.
  • The flu shot is recommended every year — that’s because the strains of the influenza virus change each year and the vaccination is modified accordingly.
  • There is a large and growing “anti-vax” campaign that falsely argues that the risks of vaccinations far outweigh their benefits; this not only poses a threat to those who forego vaccination and become sick with the flu, but also to those with whom infected persons come into contact.
I’m not the only one who took issue with this Vitamin Water campaign. The National Consumers League asked the Federal Trade Commission to ban the original ads, calling them “dangerously misleading.”

And then there’s the added sugar
Vitamin Water is one of many products whose name suggests health benefits or health advantages compared with its competitors, yet their nutritional content may be less healthy than you’d expect.

Read the label for Vitamin Water closely and you’ll see that it contains
  • 26 grams of sugar; that’s equivalent to more than six teaspoons of sugar, and more than half of the recommended allowance of carbs in a day
  • no protein or fiber
  • “ingredients sourced from genetically engineered crops (commonly known as GMOs).”
True, Vitamin Water has 25% of the daily recommendation for Vitamin A and 100% of Vitamins C, B6, and B12 — but the vast majority of people have no trouble getting plenty of these nutrients in the foods they eat.

Despite its name, there’s no obvious health advantage to getting vitamins along with the empty calories in Vitamin Water. Eat an orange instead if you’re seeking vitamin C — at least it has some fiber. And if you’re really worried you are not getting what you need from your diet, take a standard multivitamin — and see your doctor.

Of course, you could choose the zero-calorie version of Vitamin Water (and I do enjoy Vitamin Water Zero on occasion). But then you’re consuming the non-nutrient sweeteners, stevia and erythritol, the pros and cons of which we can debate another day.

Highly marketed supplements and diets versus proven treatments
For years, I’ve seen ads in my Sunday newspapers and elsewhere recommending all sorts of unproven treatments in lieu of well-studied, well-established, FDA-approved medications that have been proven to save lives. Examples include supplements and diets that claim to lower blood pressure or cure arthritis without medications. While diet is an important part of hypertension treatment, medications are typically prescribed for people who have already tried unsuccessfully to lower their blood pressure with nonmedication approaches. It’s potentially dangerous to suggest that you can stop blood pressure medications, as some glowing testimonials suggest — especially if you do so with no monitoring.

And I’ve seen many ads that proclaim, “Here’s a safe and all-natural cure for your condition that your doctor doesn’t want you to know about.” I don’t know any doctors who are keeping effective treatments secret. It’s an unfounded and cynical claim to suggest your doctor doesn’t have your best interests at heart. Meanwhile, the people using these sales tactics drive a wedge between doctors and patients in an effort to promote unproven health products.

The bottom line
You could argue that a reasonable person should know that the Vitamin Water ad is not advocating for anyone to skip their flu shot and that it’s just a way to promote their product. I disagree. Reasonable people are constantly bombarded with a torrent of misinformation. It can be hard to know which sources to believe. Downplaying the risk of skipping flu shots can have devastating consequences across a population.

Marketing works. But I think health-related marketing should be held to higher standards than ads for clothes, cars, or furniture. Advertisers should tread carefully when it comes to well-studied treatments proven to save lives. And until influenza is eliminated as a yearly health risk, it’s irresponsible and, yes, dangerous to liken flu shots to an out-of-fashion trend just to sell a sugary drink.
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