ASA upholds Equal Education complaint against Patrick Holford

The Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa (ASA) has upheld complaints lodged by Equal Education and Harris Steinman against vitamin salesman Patrick Holford.

Learning to count by Paul Seignac. Source Wikigallery.

Holford has earned notoriety in Britain and South Africa for the hyperbolic and unverified health claims he makes about his micronutrient products. He is often interviewed on television and radio, his books are marketed aggressively and his adverts run on popular radio stations. Holford's claims and modus operandi has been exposed in Ben Goldacre's book, Bad Science. Holford has also been ruled against previously by the ASA.

Last year Holford ran an advertisement on Highveld Stereo and KFM, two popular radio stations, in which he claimed his product, Smart Kids Brain Boost, would help children get to the top of their class. At the time the product sold for R149.95 on Holford's website.

Equal Education lodged a complaint with ASASA against the radio adverts. The complaint explained that Holford's claims in his adverts were not supported by evidence. Furthermore they breached the section of the advertising code that dealt with adverts aimed at children. Consumer activist, Harris Steinman, lodged a complaint against the radio adverts and Holford's claims on his website. Importantly, his complaint said that even the name of the product, Smart Kids Brain Boost, was misleading. Steinman wrote a detailed point-by-point rebuttal of Holford's claims.

The ASA ruled on 10 May. It noted that Holford made three voluntary promises:

  1. He would amend the claim that his product would help you "be top of the class" to that it "could assist your child to perform at the top of their own capacity / ability."

  2. He would remove the claim that amino acids build neurotransmitters that act as chemical messengers.

  3. He would remove the claim that certain vitamins help to promote mental vitality.

The ASA was not satisfied that the first promise addressed Equal Education's or Steinman's concerns. It therefore considered whether the claim was supported by evidence. It also considered other claims objected to by Steinman.

Holford's legal representatives, Stefan Vos Marketing Regulation Advisers, used the testimony of Professor Frederick J Veldman to support Holford's claims. The ASA found that the professor's testimony did not provide support for Holford's claims. It therefore ordered Holford to withdraw

  • the claim that phospholipids are "intelligent fats.";

  • any claims implying that Holford's product would result in improved mental or scholastic performance; and

  • the product name, Smart Kids Brain Boost.

Because the ASA found that Holford's claims are unsubstantiated and have to be withdrawn, it did not consider whether Holford's claims breached the part of the code dealing with adverts aimed at children.

The ASA's ruling is an important victory for truthful advertising based on scientific evidence. As Equal Education stated in their complaint:

It is wrong for Mr Holford to make unsubstantiated claims that take advantage of the desire young people have to succeed in school. Succeeding in school requires adequate resources, good teachers, and hard work. There is unfortunately no short-cut based on Mr Holford’s products.

Comments in chronological order (3 comments)

patrick smart wrote on 15 May 2012 at 4:38 p.m.:

And whats your qualifications may i ask

m. barbolini wrote on 16 May 2012 at 12:47 p.m.:

In his book "Say no to diabetes" Holford promises that if one limits his daily intake of food to 40 gl, diabetes type 2 will remit. Well I've tried his method and found NO improvement in my condition.

Lanfranco Sal wrote on 21 May 2012 at 11:50 p.m.:

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