In May, the trial of Servier, a company facing charges of "aggravated deception" opened in France. The charges against the company include claims that the company hid an ingredient in its diabetes drug Mediator: an amphetamine called benfluorex, which, according to the Associated Press, was pulled from the market in 2009 “after being found to thicken heart valves.”
The court claims that the dangers of benfluorex were deliberately hidden by Servier so that the company could receive approval for the drug, which was initially marketed in 1976. If the claims are true, the dangers of the ingredient are apparent: The drug may be responsible for the deaths of anywhere from 500 to 2,000 people.
This May alone, a number of other companies have been hit with deceptive marketing charges. POM Wonderful LLC, makers of POM pomegranate juice, has been found guilty of false advertising based on the company’s claims that its juice could “prevent heart disease, prostate cancer and other illnesses,” statements that were not backed by scientific evidence. Yet, according to the Associated Press, the trial’s judge rejected “an argument that the company should have to provide evidence from rigorous medical trials — the same standard required of pharmaceutical companies. Instead, the judge said the company could provide ‘competent reliable scientific evidence.’”
Even Skechers USA Inc. has been faced with its own deceptive-marketing judgment day. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced that Skechers will pay $40 million to settle charges regarding its Shape-up shoes, shoes that the company falsely claimed would aid consumers’ weight-loss and toning efforts.
If all of these cases have one thing in common, it is the fact that these companies — whether inadvertently or intentionally — padded their pocketbooks by giving false hope to their consumers. Servier’s customers believed that they were taking a drug that would help manage their diabetes, not hurt their heart. POM’s customers believed that they were reducing their risk of heart disease, cancer and other ailments. And finally, Skecher’s customers thought that they were walking (or perhaps balancing) their way to weight loss.
Marketing is a powerful tool. Many consumers know not to believe everything they read, hear or see. Yet, especially when it comes to medicines and foods, consumers want to trust that they are being protected. Few people run home to research the benefits of pomegranate juice before they pick up a bottle of POM. The benefits are listed right on the bottle, and hasn’t someone checked to make sure that these claims are true? When you’re pushing a fussy toddler around in your grocery cart or in a hurry to make it to your dentist appointment, it’s much easier to assume that they answer is “yes.”
POM and Sketchers are not being charged with the wrongful deaths of over 500 people, like Servier, but considering their alleged false health claims, it seems that the companies should have had to meet the same standards that pharmaceutical companies face. The companies are all claiming that their product provides health benefits, and evidence from rigorous medical trials would effectively prove their claims. Unfortunately for consumers, “competent reliable scientific evidence” sounds rather vague. When it comes to protecting your brand’s reputation, integrity is paramount, and nothing obliterates that integrity like false advertising.
What’s your take on deceptive marketing? Are stricter regulations in order, or do you think that these cases were flukes? Let me know by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or commenting below!