The Advertising Codes have strict rules about making medical claims for therapies and conformity-marked medical devices (for medicinal claims made for food supplements and medicines the rules are even stricter; guidance available here). The rules cover two aspects of offering treatment – who can provide it, and whether it works.
All objective claims must be substantiated; any claim that a particular therapy or product can treat or cure a medical condition or symptom is unlikely to be acceptable unless the advertiser holds robust evidence to support the efficacy claim. These claims usually include terms such as “cure”, “restore”, “prevent”, “avoid”, “fight” or “heal,” and may refer to a condition or a specific symptom.
Some medical conditions are so serious that treatment for, diagnosis of, or advice on them can only be advertised if it is under the supervision of a suitably qualified medical professional. Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) have produced a non-exhaustive list of serious medical conditions, of which the following are the most relevant to mental health concerns:
- Drug Addiction (Substance Abuse)
- Eating Disorders
- Chronic Insomnia
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
- Suicidal Thoughts
Claims to treat, cure, diagnose, or advise on these can only be made in advertising (regardless of evidence to substantiate the effectiveness of the treatment) if said treatment is supervised by a suitably qualified medical professional.
For some treatments, including complementary and alternative therapies, there is currently no robust evidence of efficacy relating to medical conditions or symptoms, and they therefore may not be referred to as cures or treatments for them. Moreover, many of these treatments will not be administered by suitably qualified medical professionals and such advertisers cannot in any case advertise treatments for serious medical conditions. Advertisers whose clientele include those who suffer from illness may therefore find it challenging to explain the service they offer while not falling foul of the Code. CAP has produced some specific guidance on how to make appropriate references to clients’ conditions and the effects of treatment, which is available here. For instance, rather than claiming “Many of my clients suffer from depression, especially in winter, and find that Shiatsu can help lift their mood,” advertisers might say “Many of my clients find Shiatsu excellent for improving their mood.”
Note: This advice is given by the CAP Executive about non-broadcast advertising. It does not constitute legal advice. It does not bind CAP, CAP advisory panels or the ASA. CAP’s Advice Online entries provide guidance on interpreting the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing.
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