Over the last decade, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has published rulings for various ads for products claiming to protect consumers from radiation and other negative effects linked to mobile phone usage.
With conclusions so far showing that neither phone usage nor proximity to base stations are likely to cause harm, it is important advertisers are aware of the need for ads for such products to not mislead or cause unjustifiable distress, and for claims to be substantiated.
- Be aware of what the evidence says
The Stewart Report 2000, which was set up in response to concern over alleged health risks from the use of mobile phones, concluded in May 2000 that “The balance of evidence does not suggest mobile phone technologies put the health of the general public of the UK at risk”. It went on to say that preliminary evidence suggested that mobile phone technology could cause subtle biological effects but those did not mean that health was affected. In 2005 the National Radiological Protection Board issued an updated statement reasserting that conclusion.
In 2011, the NHS published a leaflet which made clear that whilst more research was needed, particularly regarding long term implications, there was no immediate need for concern when using mobile phones or having a base station in your area, as there was no convincing evidence either will cause harm.
Guidance updated by the UK Health Security Agency in August 2021 reiterated that the conclusions of independent expert groups (both in the UK and internationally) had supported the view that health effects are unlikely to occur if exposures to radio waves are below international guideline levels.
- Be careful not to mislead, and have evidence for any claims
Although special precautions do not have to be taken when using mobile phones, marketers may nonetheless advertise products that reduce the amount of radiation emitted by mobile phones, such as shields or cases. However, ads for such products must not be misleading, and documentary evidence must be held to prove any objective claims (i.e. that the product works).
In 2021, the ASA considered whether efficacy claims relating to a smartDot device were misleading, and could be substantiated (Global EMF Solutions Ltd t/a energyDots, 8 September 2021). The webpage claimed a device could retune electromagnetic frequencies (“EMF”) emitted by devices such as phones without affecting their functionality, which can help people feel more focused, energised, and less stressed. Given the inadequacy of the substantiation provided to prove the device’s efficacy, and there being no robust scientific evidence showing that EMF emitted from phones were harmful, the ASA found the ad in breach of ad rules and 3.7.
Similarly, in February 2021, the ASA found a website ad for a QuantoGram Hologuard to be in breach of ad rules after claiming a device could keep consumers safe from EMF and radiation when applied to mobile phones (GHN Merchant Services Ltd t/a Good Health Naturally). The ASA said there was no evidence to substantiate the fact EMF/EMR emitted by the devices in question were harmful, or that the device would protect consumers. The same rules were breached by Pheka Agency Co Ltd in 2020 when they advertised an orgone pendant which had the ability to protect consumers against EMF radiation, and claimed that EMF radiation from devices such as phones could be harmful.
- Do not cause unjustifiable distress
Advertisers should also be aware that ads for these types of products must not cause fear or distress without a justifiable reason.
In 2012, the ASA ruled on an ad depicting ‘thermology images’ of a human head before and after mobile phone usage, and how the thermology images differed following the application of the product. The ad also suggested mobile phone radiation could cause “Headaches, Tension, Stress, Hair Loss And Possibly Brain Tumour…” The ad was deemed to have breached numerous rules, as the claim in the ad was likely to cause unjustifiable distress (Radblock Ltd, 19 September 2012). Similarly, the claim ‘…Medical experts are warning men not to keep their mobile phones in their pockets as this can have a direct effect on their fertility’ was also found to be likely to cause unjustifiable distress, as the claim highlighted an opinion that was not widely accepted in the medical community and presented it as fact (The EM Radiation Research Trust, 4 January 2012). The fear and distress generated by the ad was exacerbated by the targeting of the ads inside male toilets in service stations.
- Be careful not to direct this advertising at children
As part of their 100 Children Report, published in November 2022, the ASA found that 94% of children accessed social media platforms via personal devices only they use. In the same vein, according to Ofcom’s Children and Parents: media use and attitudes report 2022, 63% of children aged 3-17 had their own mobile phone in 2021, and the crucial age for mobile phone acquisition was found to be between the ages of 9 and 11.
However, in 2011 the NHS reiterated advice from the UK’s Chief Medical officers; those under 16 should only be encouraged to use mobile phones for essential purposes, and to keep calls short. This is because the body and nervous system are still developing into the teenage years. Ways to reduce exposure, include using hands free kits or texting, were also set out in the NHS leaflet noted above. UKHSA Guidance (last updated in February 2020) also advises that excessive use of mobile phones by children should be discouraged.
Despite phone usage by under 16s appearing to be commonplace (see statistics above), because of the Government advice on children’s phone usage, and because the ASA has not yet specifically ruled on the advertising of mobile phones to children, marketers are advised not to target mobile phone ads at children under 16. This is unless the ad is encouraging vital phone usage only. Targeting could be deemed to relate to the selection of media for the ad, the style of presentation in the ad, or the content or context in which the ad appears.
Source: Committee of Advertising Practice
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 Advertising Standards Authority (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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