Endorsements Don't Guarantee Reliability

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

If a prominent person endorses a dietary supplement or herbal product, does that mean it will work as advertised? If a company has prominent advisors or consultants or has a research department, does that mean its products are effective? If a magazine, newsletter, or web site has a medical advisory board, does that guarantee its contents are trustworthy?

The answer to each of these questions is no. Legitimate products don't need endorsements, and few scientists are willing to provide them. Supplement industry advisors seldom pay attention to how products are marketed. And many editorial advisory boards have little to do with what gets published.

The most notorious "endorsements" I have seen involved United Sciences of America, a multilevel marketing company that sold various vitamin products with claims that they would protect against many diseases. In 1986, the company proudly announced that its products were endorsed by a prominent 15-member scientific advisory board that included two Nobel Prize winners. However, what actually happened was something else. The board members had been offered a yearly retainer and promised that a percentage of product sales would fund research grants for which they could apply. They were not told that their names would be used for marketing purposes. Most resigned when they found out how they were being used. That plus government regulatory action quickly drove the company out of business in 1987, but its total sales probably exceeded $50 million.

Another company that I investigated listed five prominent figures in the sports world as endorsers of its product line for athletes. The advisors agreed to join an advisory board but didn't know their names would be used for marketing purposes. When they found out, they demanded that the company stop its misleading campaign.

Don't assume that because a dietary supplement company has a research department that it does any medically significant research. Some "research directors" are mere figureheads, and any research may be confined to manufacturing issues. Many years ago, a prominent nutrition scientist told me that a large vitamin company had offered him $100,000 a year to become its research director. He turned down the offer because he did not approve of the company's products. Nor did he believe that they wanted him to do any significant research.

Some companies hire experts to give advice on certain products while the company markets other products that are bogus. One expert I knew consulted for a company that was marketing worthless homeopathic products as well as legitimate herbals. The company took his advice about herbals but ignored his objections to the homeopathics. I asked him to stop permitting the company to publicize his name as an advisor, but he continued to let them.

Some companies use endorsements from prominent athletes to promote their products. Don't assume that the product was responsible for the athlete's success or that using the product will turn you into a champion. The major ingredient in athletic success is hard work. Some companies sponsor athletic teams or athletic events (such as the Olympic Games) in order to promote their products. That, too, should not be interpreted to mean that the products improve athletic performance.

Some low-quality magazines carry one or a few high-quality columns written by a reputable professional. Don't assume that because some writers are reputable, other information in a magazine must be valid.

The fact that a publication has a prominent-looking editorial board is a plus, but don't assume that: (a) the board members read the articles or approve of the ads, (b) the people listed are reputable simply because they have a title or degree; or (c) the board influences what is published. In many cases, they don't.

In 1986, Rodale Press's Prevention magazine hired me as an editorial consultant. I agreed to give advice as long as my name did not appear on the magazine masthead until I was satisfied that its contents were entirely accurate. Acting on my advice, the editors set up an expert prepublication review process that covered most of the articles and improved the magazine's overall quality. But it continued to publish editorials and advertisements that I found objectionable. Our relationship lasted for several years, during which they followed some of my advice and I continued to publicly criticize what I thought was improper. After we parted company, the review process was discontinued, the overall quality of the magazine decreased, and the publisher set up a Web site that includes questionable advice. To this day, I don't know whether Rodale was more interested in getting my advice or in trying to silence my criticism.

This article was posted on February 13, 2003.

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