/ Health

Will the Nurofen ad ban set a precedent for a marketing claims crackdown?


A Nurofen ad has been banned for implying it could specifically target joint and back pain. So are we seeing the start of a change in the way companies can market their painkillers?

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has told Reckitt Benckiser, the manufacturer of Nurofen, that it must stop showing a TV advert that misleads people into thinking that Nurofen Joint and Back could target pain in a specific part of the body.

In fact, the ASA ruling stated that the ad breached three rules (3.1, 3.9 and 3.12), meaning that not only was it misleading but its claims were unsubstantiated and exaggerated. The banned advert showed an anatomical image of a woman with the Nurofen moving down her body to her back, while a voiceover said: ‘Just a single dose of Nurofen Joint and Back provides you with constant targeted pain relief for up to eight hours’.

But this wouldn’t be the first time painkiller marketing claims have been brought into question…

Nurofen targeted pain relief

Back in December we reported on Nurofen’s ‘targeted’ pills as part of our research into this market.

We highlighted that the products Nurofen Migraine and Tension Headache are exactly the same as each other and – available until recently – Nurofen Express caplets (342mg of fast-acting ibuprofen lysine, which is equivalent to 200mg ordinary ibuprofen), yet are marketed differently.

Last year, the Australian Federal Court ordered the manufacturers of best-selling painkiller brand Nurofen to remove its targeted range of painkillers from Australian shops and face a potentially heavy fine for misleading consumers.

We think this is about more than just marketing. One pain expert said:

‘It’s a waste of money to buy so-called targeted painkillers, and potentially dangerous as you might be misled into taking a double dose for two main pain types [thinking they’re different medicines].’

Nurofen defended the sale of targeted painkillers, saying that they can help consumers choose the right one, just as it has defended the marketing of its Joint and Back saying it showed it could provide backache relief rather than implying this was all it could do.

Misleading marketing

But it’s also surely about the way we spend our money. Nurofen Joint and Back is actually licensed for a range of pain, including rheumatic or muscular pain, backache, neuralgia, migraine, headache, dental pain, period pain, feverishness, symptoms of colds and influenza.

Considering that extensive list, do you really need a plethora of painkillers in your cupboard all making different marketing claims? Do you feel mislead by these marketing claims, or do you consider yourself savvy enough to see through them?


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Robert C says:
3 July 2016

clearly 1 tablet does not cure all (and I am glad you have found one that works for you) but one that has a general use should not be advertised as specific to a particular pain, when it is not.

Manufacturers of medical products seem to be playing subconsciously on the concerns of people about the pressures on the NHS and GP surgeries by suggesting that you can cure anything by buying packets of pills. People are led to believe that they will have to wait ages for a clinical appointment so it would be better for them to get an off-the-shelf aches and pains remedy. If people are tempted, at least speak to the pharmacist who will probably suggest an approved over-the-counter remedy [as distinct from an off-the-shelf one] to address the specific condition and supply the correct quantity and dosage guidance for the advisory duration before seeing a doctor if there is no relief or improvement.

In a word it’s another modern day big company rip-off.

“marketing & sales” is two words plus an ampersand – but otherwise I agree with your point. (I suppose “advertising” is only one word though…)

As John Ward said, when you need good medicine it really does make sense to go and talk to your local pharmacist. If the stuff you need is only available on prescription, they’ll tell you that too.

I support speaking to the pharmacist too. A good pharmacist should ask whether you have taken a drug before, what the problem is and what other medications you are taking.

I suspect the claims made could mislead. One reason for that might be that we (subconsciously) assume we live in an era where advertising is well regulated and must, therefore, be truthful so we no longer expect advertising to be completely inaccurate. It comes as something of a surprise to discover that many companies are just as deceitful as they ever were. They’re just increasingly cunning about finding ways around the law.

This is really at the core of why we pay our Which? subscription. We need independent bodies like the Consumers’ Association to oversee consumer matters like this and deliver their verdict accordingly and openly.

The Guardian refers to this case as a landmark ruling: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jun/29/nurofen-tv-ad-banned-over-painkilling-claims-in-landmark-ruling

Maybe the real achievement is that the new ruling has overturned the previous ruling by the ASA that failed to uphold complaints about Nurofen targeting pain relief. I suggest that ASA conducts an internal review because Reckitt Benckiser has been able to continue to make false claims for four years.

I have been critical of the ASA because of their failure to tackle the general misrepresentation that pervades marketing, but at least they do respond to complaints – sometimes to a single complaint. Their website has a searchable database of complaints and each ruling is explained concisely and in plain English. Anyone not familiar with the ASA website might find it interesting to read some of the rulings.

If the ASA can respond to a single complaint, I wonder why companies are able to make hundreds of thousands of nuisance calls over an extended time period before action is taken.

I often think that the Australian consumer body “Choice” is more effective than our “Which?”. This excerpt from a site shows how responsive the manufacturer was – not. However it is good to thing that highlighting it made the whole matter more visible.

In 2010 CHOICE (Australian Consumers Association) awarded Nurofen caplets targeting migraine, back, tension headache and period pain a Shonky award.

In 2011 the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Complaint Resolution Panel (CRP) upheld a complaint by Professor Paul Rolan that the claims “targeted relief from pain” and “goes straight to the source of the pain were misleading. Reckitt Benckiser (Australia) was requested to withdraw them. The company declined to do so.

In 2012 additional complaints were submitted and upheld by the CRP but still the company declined to comply. The matter was referred to the TGA and certain orders were made. More complaints ensued.

There is more in the history here:

Reading this speech you can see a seemingly much bolshier attitude by the Aussies to companies.

Everyone should watch this, very funny , very informative.

We have still got Miele’s advertising that suggests products will last for 20 years, despite the standard guarantee period being only two years in most cases. In Australia, Miele was instructed to withdraw their advertising.

I liked the video, DT. Which? could do the same to ridicule those companies that behave irresponsibly.

In the spirit of consumerism I bet the Australians would have been very pleased and agreeable if Which? had asked to use it.

Scoring on grounds of cheapness to us and also illustrating that with multi-nationals you need a global view also.

Maybe we will align the Disunited Kingdom more with Australia following the Referendum.

Miele have, quite rightly, said that they test their products for the equivalent of 20 years use. They should be applauded for doing this – product durability is something we should seek to promote. I wish many other companies, particularly white goods suppliers, did the same.

I’d be much more concerned to criticise dubious companies who produce rubbish than one that produces decent, reliable products.

I would have thought the best way to tackle claims like that is to make the guarantee last the length of the claim. We’d soon see the ads removed. And if it whoopie

Miele are not making a “claim” from what I have seen on their website, they are saying how long they test products for to check their likely life. I’d rather be given this sort of information. And I’d like that sort of information for all “important” products so I don’t buy a washing machine that is only likely to last 2 years and can’t be repaired. Information is important to make considered decisions.

Thanks William. I was going to suggest a guarantee half the length of the claim as a compromise. I am not criticising the quality of the products, just the marketing and thankfully Miele was instructed to withdraw its adverts in Australia.

It is a statement, not a claim, isn’t it? Thankfully we have some companies that produce reliable products. Many are available with 5 year and 10 year warranties. We should be pursuing information on durability and repairability just as BEUC are asking for (umbrella organisation for European consumers associations). Do Which? actively support this stance?

We have discussed this many times, Malcolm, and I want to see decent guarantees, durable and repairable products. I believe that the inference is that a Miele product will last 20 years, so it is effectively a misleading claim. If Miele was ordered to withdraw their advertising in Australia, it’s not just me that is unhappy. Maybe we should get back to Reckitt Benckiser and their misleading claims regarding Nurofen.

Ian says:
1 July 2016

The ASA has banned some particular wording in one advert for one particular product.

There are hundreds of products on the market. In the overall scheme of things, nothing has changed.

The ruling will certainly help as a precedent for tackling similar advertising that is unsatisfactory. I would like to see all NEW claims approved before they appear in advertising. If a claim has been approved then it can be used in new advertising unless new evidence comes to light that negates the claim.

I would be tempted to agree apart forma potential log-jam and whoever is responsible for the testing. And who pays.

Seems to me that we could be cheaper and yet offer more deterrence by charging for every time a false claim is made in an advert before it is removed. And consider jail terms for a companies advertising commpliance director/and or the advertising company.

The first part of my suggestion would catch the very large advertisers as the fines could be huge. The jail term is to make the manufacturers very wary of breaching the guidelines. Of course jail is expensive but tagging directors to staying at home other than medical appointments may be the lower level of enforcement.

And for those of you thinking of politicians and lies ….. let us get the advertisers sorted first.

I don’t see why it is an insurmountable problem to have all NEW claims in advertising vetted, paid for by the company. Existing claims can be reused.

Thinking of corporate punishment, it’s time to hold senior staff accountable and punish them rather than having fines, which are just passed on to the consumer in increased costs of goods and services.

This keeps cropping up. Given the amount of new adverts across all fields and products we would be tying up vast quantities of “experts” (who might they be and where would we find them?) checking claims, tying up testing resources in a bureaucratic empire when all we have to do is treat most adverts with common sense and a sceptical outlook and require the regulators to impose very heavy penalties on the real misleading and fraudulent offenders. We need “experts” doing real productive jobs. Oh, and if the “experts” endorse an advert and it proves wrong, do we then take legal action against the “experts”.

I don’t believe Voltarol is capable of targeting particular parts of my body effectively, because that has been publicised. Similarly I don’t believe Nurofen will target, just help reduce pain. If we are “educated” on misleading claims, like superfoods, for example, then those many people with common sense can make a choice. Perhaps apply the same scepticism as we do to political statements?

I am not over-bothered whether the claims made for an X-Hose turn out to be false but it does worry me that misleading claims are made for medical remedies because they could lead to sufferers not seeking the best treatment for their ailments. I would agree that all NEW claims for medicinal products should be put to the test before advertising is permitted.

We have discussed the claims made for foods in other Conversations and the UK has guidance based on European legislation: gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/204320/Nutrition_and_health_claims_guidance_November_2011.pdf It is quite clear what is and is not allowed.

There are infringements, of course, but I believe the degree of control is adequate. We have tight control on the licensing of drug (both prescription and other drugs) manufacture and sale, so I don’t understand how there is not control to strongly discover companies from making false claims, as RB has done for Nurofen.

Presumably all these drugs are licensed so they meet the basic requirements to treat the ailment(s) for which they are sold, so it is not a safety or function issue. It is simply how some people are persuaded to buy more of them than they might need. If you have a particular ailment – back ache maybe – and the drug helps, it has done its job. You are unlikely to have ladies pains, joint pains or other pains at the same time so are you likely to buy all these varieties at the same shopping trip?

I am averse to salesmen and marketing almost on principle (I was one told it is the 90% of salesmen that get the other 10% a bad name – but I don’t believe that 🙂 ) because I like the facts on which to make my own mind up rather than listen to persuasive people trying to make my mind up for me. Perhaps we need to educate people better to make their own minds up by asking questions – try the pharmacist in this case.

Incidentally this is why I am occasionally critical of Which? campaigns and surveys that lack information or facts – I prefer to look at the problem and make my own mind up, not be bulldozed with an unbalanced case into voting the chosen way. Perhaps the ASA equivalent could be applied here? 🙂

If the manufacturers of Nurofen wanted to sell it as a painkiller suitable for a variety of conditions , I can see no problem as long as they stick to ones that are normally treated with the drug.

They could also make a valid claim that ‘Nurofen is considerably more expensive and equally effective as ibuprofen sold in most supermarkets’. Maybe I should have gone into marketing. 🙂

How’s the dog basket charger?
We, consumers, have to be savvy. Life is about dealing with such things. I do not condone fraudulent or misleading advertising but equally we have to learn to deal with life as it is. Simply publicise that Nurofen is the equivalent of cheap Ibuprofen and I bet many people will still opt for the “trusted brand”. In the same way people buy water in expensive bottles when it is free out of their taps.

The problem as posted elsewhere, is that consumers may unwittingly take the same drug for the various aches and pains such as headache , backache etc because they believe they ARE specific to an area. It is irrelevant what the little bits of paper and the warnings as humans being simple creatures simply remember those big bold adverts.

The manufacturers marketing is potentially dangerous and on those grounds alone should be hammered.

Reading Wikipedia lists the potential side-effects. They may not be over common but with millions taking them daily it adds up.

If you have taken more than your recommended daily dose of ibuprofen, contact your GP or call NHS 111. If you have taken a large overdose, go to your nearest ..

Malcolm – It is interesting to explore the concept of a ‘trusted brand’.
– Perhaps it is easiest to equate trusted brand with the market share, which makes, Coca Cola and McDonalds trusted brands. A significant minority has nothing but contempt for these companies.
– Familiarity can create a trusted brand. It’s well established that advertising works, which I assume accounts for the popularity of Nurofen. As far as I know there is no evidence that Nurofen is any better than other brands, but maybe it comes in a nicer looking box. Maybe it comes with better instructions in larger print, which is the only advantage I have yet found with the better known brands of prescription drugs.
–Selling products at a higher price is sometimes used to convince us that a product must be better than other brands. Maybe that’s a factor with Nurofen.

I question whether the average consumer is likely to be ‘savvy’ over pharmaceuticals. They will appreciate that ibuprofen gel applied to a sore knee could give targeted pain relief and many asthmatics know that inhaled steroids are less likely to cause side effects than oral steroids. Some will know that there are drugs that genuinely target specific sites (unlike ibuprofen) but probably as a result of a medical condition that they or a family member suffers from. The fact that many buy Nurofen rather than an equally effective and significantly cheaper brand of ibuprofen suggests to me that the population is anything but savvy in this context.

Dieseltaylor – I share your concerns regarding safety. Ibuprofen is a very useful drug but selling it in supermarkets carries various risks. I don’t watch TV advertising but I’ll bet there is little warning of the risks associated with Nurofen (which would obviously apply to other brands too).

“Perhaps it is easiest to equate trusted brand with the market share””. I don’t follow the logic of this. These are jusr default brands – widely available but not consequentially “trusted”. I would trust, for example, Miele, Marks and Spencer food, Felco secateurs, Veritas wood planes. Not necessarily market leaders but products that have given me cause to trust them with decent credentials behind them. Whirlpool might be high in market share but I would not “trust” them in the way I would other appliance manufacturers.

It is a shame when brands are sold so someone else can simply trade on their established credentials, but without continuing to support those credentials – Qualcast perhaps as an example. I believe the ultimate owner of a branded product should be very clearly shown; we can then decide whether we are comfortable dealing with them. As an example I have no respect for Coca Cola’s operation and with control of Innocent Smoothies I would not trust the latter either – maybe wrongly but attitudes can be contagious.

It was simply one interpretation of ‘trusted brand’, Malcolm. As I said, some of us have nothing but contempt for the company, but for people to continue to buy Coca Cola there must be a fair number who do trust the brand.

I have too have brands that I trust, both of products and retailers, but there are actions that can put me off brands too. For example, I generally avoid Nestle products for ethical and other reasons well documented on Wikipedia. I avoid various products because they are/were expensive compared with alternatives. One example is Nurofen, which is no better than ibuprofen sold in the supermarket for a fraction of the price.

So if they’ve banned the ad, will they also be forced to remove the wording from the packing?

Rob says:
2 July 2016

According to the code of conduct no medicine should imply a benefit for which there is no evidence. This “rule” is routinely broken (just look at the so-called men’s and women’s vitamins). I have reported these to the ASA but they can’t see a problem. This Nurofen ad (and Voltarol and many others) are blatant nonsense but the ASA is on the side of the advertisers. They take no action unless there is a complaint, and even then they usually don’t. I don’t believe a word any of them say and I don’t think the ASA is doing its job.

We need to keep up the pressure, Rob. The recent ASA ruling overturns one made in 2012 regarding Nurofen being able to target the source of pain.

I want advertising that is ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’ by everyone’s standards – not just the lax standards of the ASA. At least you have done something, which is more than most of us have done.

Robert C says:
3 July 2016

Advert shows someone rubbing Voltarol gel on their back………….. what does it do to their fingers ?

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Robert C says:
3 July 2016

Voltarol is a gel – TV advert – as far as I can remember.
(.co.uk website “Voltarol Emulgel® P brings targeted and localised relief from pain and swelling (inflammation) in muscles, back and neck.”)

It may be the same as/similar to Voltaren as you describe. Maybe I am confused. All the more reason not to allow TV adverts for drugs. (I am not saying ban the drugs if useful and recommended by a pharmacist)

Having done another check, Voltaren (you describe, appears on a .com website) and Voltarol (I remember) seem to be the same.

For the purpose of this Which Conversation, my point is it is another example claiming to target specific areas……. but magically has no corresponding effect on the hand that rubbed it on.

‘Voltarol’ is a popular pain-relief gel sold in countless chemists, supermarkets, general stores and on-line. I have not checked its formulation as it comes in various types.

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We don’t have any Voltarol in the house right now but from memory I think there is a full patient information leaflet covering application and possible side-effects inside every pack. It’s not a secret. The UK authorities that license drugs for medicinal purposes are strict on companies providing this information but not everyone reads the leaflet, of course, so complications can occur.

Its an interesting debate, and they may have come a cropper legally. Yet scientifically because of a well known phenomenon called blood circulation, the drug is delivered to every nook and cranny of the body. So in that sense, what they claim is correct. They could have avoided the controversy by simply telling the scientific truth, adding that because of the circulating blood it will get everywhere, and at a suitable concentration ,do the job.

Kenneth, I think the issue here is that the blood circulates the drug to the target and every other part of the body too.

Hence this “cheats” somewhat with its use of the word “targeted”. In shooting competitions, we’d expect a good shot to keep all his (or her) rounds on the target, instead of scattering them all over the target and the surrounding area.

Peter says:
2 July 2016

It’s time to push trading standards (via Citizens Advice) or the CMA to take action on the marketing of these products. It seems to me that it’s clearly a misleading action to describe the product as being targeted at particular symptoms. The nurofen website describes the products as “symptom specific” and if you use its “compare” function it states that the specific products are suitable for specific ailments, implying that they are not suitable for others and so encouraging consumers to purchase different types. This has been tackled by the ACCC in Australia with a 1.9m dollar fine. We need enforcement action here for misleading actions and/or omissions.

Robert C says:
3 July 2016

I’d like to see any drugs with medical benefits (stopping short of vitamins etc) banned. There should be point of sale information to make an informed choice (the best one is a pharmacist of course) and the answer will be if you want Ibuprofen, buy the cheap GENERIC and not the one you recognise from the TV advert………. TV adverts cost money, so guess who is paying for it !

Robert C says:
3 July 2016

Correction: “I’d like to see any drugs with medical benefits banned”……….. should have read banned from advertising. (like tobacco)

John Cudbertson says:
4 July 2016

Let us hope that this is a beginning; all advertisements should be legally obliged to state only proven fact and enforced rigorously with substantive fines for the manufacturer, advertising agency, and the channels airing the offending item. The money raised should then be donated to the BBC.

Simply banning an ad is not enough – by the time the ban is in place it might not have been planned to repeat it anyway. Clear fraudulent claims should be fined as a proportion of the sales resulting from the offending advertising. My view is that making it unprofitable to behave fraudulently should prevent most companies contemplating it. However I concede it did not prevent VW Group’s stupidity – but that also shows quite incompetent management. The difficulty will always be in the grey areas, where an advert can be regarded by some as misleading but not clearly fraudulent.

I agree that banning an ad is not enough, but fines would just be treated as a business expense and passed on to customers. We have both questioned the use of fines in the past. Perhaps we could at least explore the practicality of having NEW claims approved before they are used in advertising. Advertising changes, of course, but reusing the same claim need not be checked.

Elsewhere, @malcolm-r mentioned First Defence when I said I had a summer cold. It’s not a product I am familiar with and a quick search found this dialogue: askforevidence.org/ask-for-evidence/5512fc60736572018c0f0000

I don’t know what to make of this exchange. I have read many rulings by the ASA but this is the first time I can recall seeing an informal response to a query.

I am always sceptical about products like this, regarding colds as inevitable and we must let then take their natural course. However because mrs r is particularly at risk from chest infections I will take any precautions I can if I show symptoms of a cold, just in case the remedy may help. Individuals will never know of course whether the precautions they have taken have been effective. however I have to say that when Ii have squirted First Defence up my nostrils I feel that there has been an element of success, and all that matters is I have tried.

I note that P&G won’t release trials data to individuals – I think that is fair, although others will disagree – but will (do?) to the regulators and it is to them we should direct our requests. They are no doubt (?) the best people to interpret the data and decide on its efficacy. I’d like to know what they make of the product.

“Helps stop a cold in its tracks” is the claim on the packet according to an advert on the Boots UK website. I would have thought that this would be within the remit of the ASA to adjudicate on. The pack also says “Clinically proven”, so I would expect to see the evidence.

Interestingly Vicks First Defence is said not to be a drug, on the basis that the claimed effect is claimed to be due to pH change rather than chemical interaction – the normal basis of the mode of action of drugs.

As someone who has been expected to publish papers by research councils and other funding bodies during their work, suppressing the dissemination of knowledge is a very alien concept. If a company wants to protect products, surely it will can file patents in the usual way. Once they are in place there should be no problem with publication of information.

I’m sorry to hear about Mrs R because chest infections used to affect me badly and are something I can relate to.

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The ingredients of FD are “Aqua, Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose (based on plant extracts), Succinic Acid, Disodium Succinate, PCA, Phenethyl alcohol, Zinc EDTA, Zinc Acetate, Polysorbate 80, Aroma: (Menthol, Camphor, Eucalyptol), Sodium Saccharin”. I imagine that the bottle would be the expensive part.

There is no microorganism, Duncan. If the gel acts as a physical barrier to the cold virus it could be effective, but I would want to see evidence from clinical trials.

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I would not agree because the paint on a car is very effective in preventing steel from rusting, simply by preventing water coming into contact with the metal. The ingredients are chemicals and there is nothing to genetically modify.

Well spotted the bit about targeting viruses, Duncan. To quote: “Unlike medicines that help relieve bothersome cold symptoms, First defence nasal spray works at the first signs of a cold by targeting the viruses to help stop the cold in its tracks before the symptoms get worse.”

That looks like an unsubstantiated claim, like Nurofen targeting back pain, migraine or other ailment. I wonder if @jpearl could comment on this.

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The main component of First Defence is hydroxypropyl methylcellulose, which is a sticky material like wallpaper paste. I presume that (if it works as claimed) it coats the virus particles and thus interferes with them being recognised by human cells in the nasal passages.

I have no idea whether or not the product works but it might be worth raising this with the ASA again. They eventually changed their view on whether Nurofen provided targeted pain relief, but the manufacturer was able to profit from sales of overpriced ibuprofen for four years. Here are the two cases: https://www.asa.org.uk/Rulings/Adjudications.aspx?SearchTerms=nurofen#results

Reckitt Benckiser is still playing games, claiming that Nurofen can target specific pain.

The packs of Nurofen Express that I saw yesterday were marked ‘Targets pain fast’, which is acceptable, but the display carton was marked ‘Targets headaches faster’.

I saw the same thing months ago but thought that the cartons might be old ones, refilled with new packs.

I can provide a photo if Which? would like to take this up, otherwise I will complain to ASA.