Science Magazines Violating Their Own Missions

Do science magazines undermine themselves by publishing ads for pseudoscientific products?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under General Science, Logic & Persuasion

Skeptoid #52
June 30, 2007
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Today we're going to sit back with our favorite science magazine, open a cold beverage, and read outrageous pseudoscience claims. How's that? Have they lost their editorial way? Not quite: They've lost control of their advertising departments.

I've been a reader of popular publications like Scientific American and Popular Science for many years. I enjoy the articles but I always have to deliberately avoid the last pages where they tend to run advertisements for blatantly pseudoscientific products: aphrodisiacs, herbal supplements, magic jewelry, and the like. Now obviously, Popular Science has to make money and advertising is one way they do that. If their hands were completely tied and they tried to be too restrictive about what types of ads they run, they might not make the money they need. Even skeptical readers like me would rather see them in business than out of it, so we should probably allow them the leeway they need to make the money they need. Right? Well, maybe. It's a give and take. The more bogus ads they run, the more it cuts into their credibility. These publications put themselves out there as proponents of scientific advances, and when they publish even third-party materials that run counter to this mission, they're contributing to society's built-in adhesion to the Dark Ages.

I contacted Popular Science's advertising department and asked for their advertising guidelines. I wasn't able to get anything on paper, but I did get a verbal instruction that the products they advertise must actually work and must do what the ad says they do. OK, interesting. Let's open Popular Science and see if the advertised products are truly evidenced to do what they claim.

Here's an anti-aging supplement on page 90 that will make you look and feel younger, stronger, perform better, and recover faster. Plus it's "lab tested" and "highest rated". Apparently, that's good enough for Popular Science.

On another page I find a "trust potion". It's a spray that "compels others to trust you" and "fuels intimacy". A trust potion, Popular Science! Shouldn't this be your cover story? Can we get an article about this? Obviously you must agree that it does what it claims.

I actually did find one ad for a useless product that says, as required, that its statements have not been evaluated by the FDA — but only one, and my understanding of the law is that this is required of all ads that make unsupported medical claims. This one's for a "Super Male Pill from Europe". Oh, it's from Europe! We'd better read on. It's an "all natural super sex pill" and it makes some very specific claims for its male enhancement results that are a little too racy for this podcast. I counted 24 exclamation points in this one advertisement. Generally, exclamation point count is considered the hallmark of responsible reporting. But not to worry, this product does promise that it will not cause "blue vision".

Here's an ad for a pheromone additive for your cologne. It says it was published in a "respected biomedical journal". But they are looking out for you: They advise you to "reject cheap imitations".

Here's a two-page spread with facing ads for competing male enhancement products. One of them is "doctor approved", offers 5 inches of "enhancement", and sells for $120 for a three month supply. But the other is "natural", offers only 1 to 3 inches of "enhancement", and sells for $327 for a six month supply. Even though the latter product doesn't enhance you as much, it's worth so much more because it's natural and not doctor approved. Once again we have excellent proof that anything all-natural is much better than anything doctor approved.

One of the most bizarre ads in Popular Science is for a water filter — or something; neither their ads nor their web site is willing to tell you exactly what their product is — that claims that pure water, filtered water, and distilled water are toxic, and that their special water machine (whatever it is) is the only way to get water that doesn't "spread disease". Among the mess on their home page are claims that going to the dentist can give you AIDS, pure water causes serious prostate problems, water is "dead", Internet search engines "lie to push their own hidden agenda in spite of human suffering", and my favorite, "sellers of pure water products are breaking the law by hiding facts from buyers that they need to make an informed buying decision!" (exclamation point). Thank you, Popular Science magazine, for alerting us to these dangers.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Scientific American is perhaps not as guilty of spreading this nonsense as Popular Science, but their closet is by no means totally clean either. In nearly every issue they run a full page ad for an outrageously priced exercise machine, and it states clearly that four minutes a day on this machine gives you the same benefit as 20 to 45 minutes of running, plus 45 minutes of weight training, plus 20 minutes of stretching, plus it balances your blood sugar (whatever that means), plus it repairs bad backs and shoulders, plus it will make your body look so good that your friends will all buy one too — all in only four minutes a day. Now I don't want that company to sue me, so I'm not going to make a statement like those claims are all blatantly fraudulent, but I find it bizarre that a magazine with standards for the products they advertise could have read over that copy and found it to be acceptable. And by the way, the same ad is also in Popular Science.

If you make the decision that your mission is to advance science, it makes no sense to undermine that mission by publishing ads for products that are fraudulent or that make unsupported bogus claims. So I can only assume that Popular Science does not have the advancement of science as their mission, or if they do, it's in some kind of "negotiable" status. So, buyer beware, and read with caution. The standards here are basically the same as those for Oprah or Montel.

Brian Dunning

© 2007 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Advertising Standards Authority. "The CAP Code Index." Advertising Standards Authority. Advertising Standards Authority, 4 Mar. 2003. Web. 17 Nov. 2009. <http://www.asa.org.uk/asa/codes/cap_code/CodeIndex.htm>

Dodds, Rachel E., Tseelon, Efrat. "Making Sense of scientific claims in advertising. A study of scientifically aware consumers." Public Understanding of Science. 17 Apr. 2008, Volume 17, Number 2: 211-230.

FTC. "Frequently Asked Advertising Questions: A Guide for Small Business." Federal Trade Commission. US Federal Government, 1 Apr. 2001. Web. 16 Nov. 2009. <http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/business/adv/bus35.shtm>

Krugman, Dean M., Ferrell O.C. "The Organizational Ethics of Advertising: Corporate and Agency Views." Journal of Advertising. 1 Jan. 1981, Volume 10, Number 1: 21-30, 48.

Lilienfeld, S., Lynn, S., Lohr, J. Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology. New York: The Guilford Press, 2003.

Phillips, Michael J. Ethics and Manipulation in advertising: answering a flawed indictment. Westport: Quorum Books, 1997.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Science Magazines Violating Their Own Missions." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 30 Jun 2007. Web. 30 Sep 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4052>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 19 comments

I've tried the ROM Cross-Trainer and it's one ferocious piece of exercise equipment. You really do use more muscles muscles simultaneously and intensely than any other exercise I've tried. I was thoroughly drained and gasping for breath after four minutes.

I can imagine that doing the ROM full-out for four minutes could be a better workout than X minutes of the other forms performed as lackadaisically as many people do their exercise.

Is that a fair, honest comparison? Of course not. But calling the ROM Trainer claims "blatantly fraudulent" is misleading as well.

The ROM Trainer is not some placebo device like the Q-Link Pendant; it is a real exercise machine and you will get a real workout if you use it.

But I wouldn't pay $14K for such a huge, heavy monstrosity.

jack, San Francisco
June 7, 2010 12:41pm

I subscribe to The Nation, a well-known magazine on the left. It often carries ads that are diametrically opposed to its purpose and editorial point of view, for example, ads from BP, right-wing anti-immigrant groups, and right-wing Zionist groups. When called on this, the response has always been that 1. they don't want to censor anyone, and 2. their policy is, they don't refuse any ads whatsoever. This saves a lot of money, as Paul pointed out, and certainly simplifies the ad-acceptance process.

Nora Freeman, Port Chester, NY
July 1, 2010 6:03pm

What is the point of exercising for 4 minutes?

Sorry, I just cant see any benefit. It sounds like a TENS machine "growing muscles".

Surely somebody could exercise their sniffer here.

Henk van der Gaast, Sydney
October 7, 2010 9:43pm

I'm with Mimsy on the pot/kettle issue here. I'm amazed that you could take such a strong (editorial) position without addressing your own use of unapproved advertising OR responding to the comments above calling you on it (made ore than 18 months ago).

A disclaimer stating,"Skeptoid is not responsible for the content of the ads below. Often they are great illustrations of what this episode is examining critically, so feel free to take a look." is NOT sufficient. I don't have a problem with the ads (in either the website or magazines) but they should be made clearly distinct from the endorsed text (For example bordered by a different colour background and with the disclaimer top & bottom)

Luke, Sydney
December 12, 2010 11:46pm

I'm not sure if it's clear from this episode, but "blue vision" is a reference to a common side-effect of Viagra. Apparently it can make you perceive things as slightly bluish. From http://www.viagra.com/safety-information.aspx, "The most common side effects of VIAGRA are headache, facial flushing, and upset stomach. Less commonly, bluish vision, blurred vision, or sensitivity to light may briefly occur."

David, Ottawa, Canada
February 3, 2011 8:05pm

It was for this reason I stopped renewing my subscription to <i>Scientific American</i>. The number of articles was not only outnumbered by the amount of ads but the ads were annoying and ridiculous. I couldn't take any of the articles seriously when "Proven Male Enhancements" were on ever page. I would definitely agree that the credibility was called into question. I am sure that they could get better ads if they put in a larger effort; Buckyballs for example would be a perfect product that loves to buy big ads, even energy drinks would be a decent fit.

Daniel Gleiberman, Edmonton, Canada
September 14, 2011 3:13am

Daniel, i take you (as I) have given p on commercial TV until it comes to sport.

Then the wild claims of chemical companies on vitamins and supplements using recognised sports people make me channel surf to the sane wrestling.

When is the Taker making a re-appearance?

Mud, Sin City, Oz
October 25, 2011 8:34am

I never read the ads on SciAm and PopSci. :)

Paul, Canberra, Australia
June 13, 2012 9:39pm

It's from Europe... Hahaha, ancient wisdom allright.

Onur, Istanbul/Turkey
March 6, 2013 6:05am

Obviously, this was created before Brian started using whatever service is providing the ads featured on his own content. Maybe you should make this one go away, now. It destroys your own credibility.

Ben, Columbus, OH
March 20, 2013 12:50pm

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