Exploring "Responsibility" in Advertising: Health Claims about Dietary Supplements

By Kreth, Melinda L. | Business Communication Quarterly, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Exploring "Responsibility" in Advertising: Health Claims about Dietary Supplements


Kreth, Melinda L., Business Communication Quarterly


RESPONSIBILITY IN ADVERTISING is a concept students need to understand. To help them do so, I focus a collaborative research assignment on the health claims made for dietary supplements.

Rationale for the Topic

Why this topic? There are several reasons. First, in a general way it helps students explore the social, economic, and political contexts in which regulatory standards emerge and evolve as well as how they are disseminated, implemented, and enforced. As such, it helps them become responsible business leaders and informed consumers. Second, the dietary supplement industry is big. It generates billions of dollars annually and seems likely to continue growing, largely in response to the public's increasing frustration with the mainstream health care industry. It is also relatively unregulated (compared to, for instance, the pharmaceutical industry) and existing regulations are difficult to enforce.

Third, health claims made for dietary supplements generate much controversy among a number of interested parties: the public, regulatory agencies, the courts, Congress, the media, the business community, the medical and scientific communities, and consumer advocacy and special interest groups. For example, the medical and scientific communities claim to be concerned about dietary supplements because there is extremely little scientific evidence to prove that they are safe and/or beneficial. On the other hand, critics of the mainstream healthcare industry counter that the real reason doctors and scientists don't like supplements is that they perceive them as a threat to their powerful positions within the healthcare hegemony. Most doctors and scientists ally themselves with consumer groups that strive to strengthen federal regulation of the dietary supplement industry and to protect consumers from quacks and con artists. But other consumer groups oppose such efforts, believing instead that federal regulation of the industry should be limited or removed altogether and that consumers should be free to choose for themselves what products are safe and effective. Most manufacturers, distributors, and retailers agree.

A fourth reason for focusing on health claims made for dietary supplements is that it's an excellent way to help students identify and question the ethics and effectiveness of using faulty reasoning in advertisements. Two common fallacies are post hoc reasoning and inappropriate appeals to authority. Post hoc fallacies most often take the form of testimonials from allegedly satisfied consumers who simply assume a causal relationship between a supplement and its perceived effects, as if subjective opinions are valid and reliable evidence of a supplement's epidemiological effects. In fact, any perceived effect of taking a particular supplement might simply be a placebo effect, i.e., a psychological effect rooted in the user's belief in the product's efficacy, rather than any actual effect induced by the product itself. Another widely used form of fallacious reasoning among supplement ads is inappropriate appeals to authority. For example, the television ad of a ginkgo biloba supplement offers an endorsement by an actor (who plays a doctor on a popular television show) to establish the effectiveness of the product, even though an actor does not possess the necessary expertise to legitimately make such an endorsement. Finally, a great deal of information is available to students on dietary supplements and, as we shall see, this information is available from a variety of sources.

The Assignment

Students prepare collaborative reports (5-7 pages) and give oral presentations on their findings. We discuss the concept of responsibility in advertising and generate a list of research questions in terms of what we want/need to know about the topic. Below is a list of questions students are encouraged to explore, both as a class and in groups:

* What are dietary supplements? …

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