Leys Geddes, then Chair of BSA, has been involved in a campaign against claims that give false hope by offering to 'cure' stammering.
The British Stammering Association has campaigned for several years to eradicate misleading advertising claims made by stammering treatment providers. Some claim, for example, that they can 'cure' or 'eliminate' stammering. But it is not possible to 'cure' a stammer, in the accepted medical sense of the word. Accordingly, we believe such claims not only give false hope to those who stammer - but also give people who don't stammer the false impression that stammering can easily be rectified.
Respectable healthcare companies carry out independent trials on large numbers of people, over long periods of time, before they are allowed to claim any kind of benefit for their products or services. It should be exactly the same with claims for stammering treatments.
Our campaign has been conducted in two ways:
- firstly, by encouraging treatment providers who are making doubtful claims to provide supporting data and, if they cannot do so, to moderate those claims;
- secondly, in cases where the the treatment provider does not co-operate, we have reported their advertisements to our Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), who have investigated the claims and, if they prove to be unsupportable, have instructed them to remove the offending advertisement and to amend any future claims.
New ASA rules from 2011
Previously, the ASA has only acted against claims made in paid-for advertising. But, as from 1st March 2011, they will also act against misleading claims made in editorial copy on websites (Landmark agreement extends ASA's digital remit (link to asa.org.uk)).
BSA has therefore started making some complaints to the ASA about claims made on websites.
Following a complaint by the British Stammering Association, on 13th July the Advertising Standards Authority issued an adjudication against a a website which claimed for example "...Discover how to stop stuttering with stammering cure that works..." Adjudication by ASA (on ASA website).
The Advertising Standards Authority have just announced that, following a complaint by the BSA, a stammering course has agreed to amend treatment claims such as "Unique 2-day fluency coaching enabling confident, fluent, stammer-free speech in adults & children. The results are immediate!".
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has ruled against a company claiming "100 success rate" with a "cure" for stuttering. The advert had been referred to the ASA by the British Stammering Association. The company did not respond to ASA's enquiries.
The ASA says in its adjudication: "We understood that it was sometimes possible for stammering to be managed and controlled. We noted, however, the ad stated "Cure Stuttering", "#1 Stuttering Treatment" and "100% Success Rate", which we considered implied it was possible to entirely eliminate it, a breakthrough claim, for which we had not seen evidence in support of this."
In the absence of robust evidence consisting of clinical trials to support the company's claims to offer a 'cure' or 'treatment' for stammering, the ASA concluded that the ad was likely to mislead. It said the ad must not appear again in its current form.
Following BSA's complaints, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has made adjudications against five more ads from two organisations.
These adjudications have been made because the organisations in question did not respond to the ASA's requests for data which might have supported their claims.
An additional benefit of these adjudications is that Google, who ran these ads, are deemed to be affiliate marketers, and thus bear responsibility for accepting ads which infringe the advertising codes.
So we have written to Matt Brittin, the Country Director of Google UK, pointing out that, once again, Google has been found to be taking money for ads, without taking responsibility for their content. We also reminded him that, in addition to the British Stammering Association, many other authoritative people and organisations - including the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists and the Stuttering Foundation of America - have already advised Google that stammering cannot be 'cured'. That is why we have all asked that stuttering/stammering should be included in the Google 'Miracle Cures' policy (see below under Google AdWords), so that ads of this kind will no longer be accepted by Google.
We will carry on reporting ads to the ASA which feature misleading claims about stammering treatments. Google, we hope, will reconsider their position.
There have been further representations to Google asking it to change its policy. John Bercow, the Member of Parliament who led the Government's recent review of speech and language services for children, has written to Google asking them to do so. The Royal College of Speech & Language Therapists has also done so.
In the States, the Stuttering Foundation of America have agreed '100%' with the principle that there is no cure for stammering/stuttering and they are thinking about the text of a possible letter to Google. Also in the States, ASHA (the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association) are considering whether to take action.
The ASA are now taking action against ads for another four websites which we have reported for 'cure' claims. All of these ads are on Google. The ASA now say that if they keep appearing on Google and "if we were to have a number of decisions which breached the Code, we may contact Google with our concerns".
Leys wanted to get greater support for this issue around the world - as ads on Google reach the whole world. He has now been interviewed by Stutter Talk which is based in the US, and most of the 45 minutes was devoted to this issue.
Success with advertisers
We identified numerous adverts claiming to cure or eliminate stammering. Following direct discussions, all of the UK advertisers except for one, and some in the States, agreed to change the wording of their adverts. This one exception was reported to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and, after a discussion with them, agreed to change their ads.
A number of new websites and new ads then popped up, and these too have been reported to the ASA. However, rather than dealing with each advertiser individually, it became apparent that a direct approach to Google, who carry nearly all of these ads, might be more effective.
Therefore, we contacted Google AdWords who provide the advertising you see when using Google Search, which accounts for about 65% of all searches. They have a policy against what they describe as 'miracle cure' advertisements. However, they say that "We monitor [ads submitted for] specific diseases for Miracle Cure such as Cancer, AIDs (sic), Psoriasis, Arthritis, Fibromyalgia, Cystic Fibrosis, Multiple Sclerosis (MS), leukemia, bipolar and schizophrenia. We have not included stammering under miracle cure and therefore they are approved to run."
We have asked them to review this policy. They have currently refused:
Email to Google AdWords
"There was a time when stammering was thought to be simply an outward sign of a nervous disposition and that people who suffered from it could stop it quite easily if they had the necessary 'strength of character'. Thus people who stammer have long been seen as weaklings and many are still laughed at. So, in addition to the frustrations involved in knowing what you want to say, but not always being able to say it, we also suffer from teasing as children and prejudice in later life. But recent research, including brain scans, have showed that the root cause of stammering is a neurological condition; in other words our brains don't work normally, the wiring is faulty and, as a result, we cannot maintain the rhythm of our speech, and it keeps breaking down. You can check any authoritative source you want, and you will see that there is no cure for stammering - although, usually with therapy, we can learn to speak more fluently.
"So, if you carry ads which claim to 'cure' stammering, you give false hope to those who stammer and help perpetuate the false impression amongst people who do not stammer, that we could cure ourselves quite easily. And this increases the prejudice against which we have to fight. For example, one of the ads you are currently carrying claims 'Breakthrough cure takes 9 minutes - 100% guaranteed - eliminates cause'. This is entirely impossible: as impossible as it is to cure bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or Tourette's."
Response from Google AdWords
Google responds that their Policy team has not approved stammering to come within their 'miracle cure' policy. "Advertisers are responsible for the content of their adverts which they place on our systems. Our terms and conditions make very clear that all adverts must not violate any applicable law, regulation or code of practice (including the CAP Code in the UK enforced by the ASA)." Also Google's advertising policies are not designed to be exhaustive statements of law or best practice. "We currently apply our miracle cures policy in respect of claims made about very serious medical conditions such as cancer, AIDs and leukaemia. However we keep all of our policies under review, and thank you for your comments."
Comment by LEYS
Google have a duty to demonstrate leadership and the power to change public perceptions. But, instead, one of the world's most loved brands is happy to sit there, saying that, yes, it does have a no miracle cures rule, but no, it doesn't apply to stammering, despite all the evidence that there is no cure for stammering. So the advertising department will carry on taking the money for ads which encourage false hopes and feed false impressions.
It's not a good day for corporate responsibility.