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Irish influencers 'must have evidence' to back up their Instagram claims about wellness products

One influencer claimed that a gut-health product stopped their irritable bowel syndrome.

Image: Shutterstock/Maridav

IRISH INFLUENCERS HAVE begun promoting ‘wellness’ products on their Instagram pages – but the advertising watchdog says that any claims must be backed up by evidence.

Some of the most popular products seen on Irish influencers pages include vitamin and gut-health supplements. Some are brand ambassadors for the products.

One Irish influencer posted on Instagram that a gut health product – for which they are a brand ambassador – led to “non-existent” irritable bowel syndrome, stopping stomach ulcers, and greater tolerance to food, as well as improved skin and arthritis. The influencer has over 35k followers.

Claims like the ones made on their post are likely to come under scrutiny by the ASAI.

Health claims

Regarding wellness products, the CEO of the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (ASAI), Orla Twomey, told TheJournal.ie: “The type of products [promoted by influencers] would be essentially functional food supplements. There are rules which we have reflected in our code in making health and nutritional claims about food.”

She said that the influencer must ensure that the effect claimed about the product must be registered and must appear on the EU register of nutrition and health claims

“If you were to say calcium has an effect on bone health, you can say it supports bone health – you can’t say it’s going to transform [your bones] into the strongest ever,” she said.

The ASAI points out in its guidance that, for example, in the case of a product that calls itself a probiotic, there are no approved health claims. 

Any terms that imply probiotic activity (i.e. imply that the bacteria in the product may be beneficial for health) are health claims and are not permitted.
The European Commission has advised the FSAI that where terms like ‘live’ or ‘active’ are used to describe bacteria, these imply a probiotic function and therefore are considered to be health claims. No health claims have been approved for ‘probiotic’ and therefore terms that imply a probiotic function are not permitted.

There are also no approved health claims for prebiotics. 

To date, there has not been a huge amount of complaints about influencers and health supplements. “But they certainly do come before our remit if the material the blogger is doing is a marketing communication,” said Twomey.

When it is an ad then all the rules come into play. You musn’t mislead, you mustn’t promote unsafe practices. If you are making a health claim on a product there must be substantiation for that.

She said that it is the company engaging with the blogger or influencer which has the primary responsibility in making sure the influencer does not make unsubstantiated claims about a wellness product. 

Twomey encourages bloggers who engage with companies over wellness products to ask where is the evidence for any claims.

“If the marketing communications make general claims, there needs to be evidence that the product has that effect,” she said. “We wouldn’t be asking the blogger to go and do robust scientific tests on themselves.”

She said that if the influencer makes specific claims about what the product does or has done for them, “there must be evidence that the product generally does have that effect”.

Testimonials, which tend to be used in traditional media, are not evidence of a claim, said Twomey. “If product claims are made in testimonials we would require [evidence] to back it up,” she said. 

Twomey said that it is not surprising that influencer marketing is moving into different areas. But she said that influencers “have to be careful about what they say”.

“They can’t extrapolate [an] unsubstantiated claim that a company wouldn’t,” she said.

The ASAI has recently dealt with influencers and asked them to change or remove posts following complaints about the content in them.

Medical devices

Twomey said the wellness trend is one “that is going to continue because we do see that trends that start in the States [spread here], apart from medicines, which won’t happen”.

Indeed, Ireland has yet to follow the US, where some influencers have begun advertising medical devices

Twomey explained that it is unlikely that Irish influencers will begin working with medical brands chiefly because of advertising standards in this country.

“In Europe you cannot advertise prescription medications to people,” she said. “You can in the US, and there’s lots of warnings that have to go on the ads. But here you can’t advertise prescription medications to the public, [and] I couldn’t see that as something that would be a trend that would take off here.”

She said that the Health Products Regulatory Authority would have a “strong role” in this area. 

Complaints

The ASAI received 107 complaints in 2018 about influencer marketing. “Not every complaint we get turns out to be about a marketing communication,” said Twomey. “We are very careful that we don’t assume unless the context is very clear that it is a marketing communication.”

Consumers are engaging with the area of influencer marketing “quite extensively”, said Twomey. “We are very happy the awareness of what is required has increased substantially over the last few years.”  She said that it is an issue the ASAI will continue to focus on.

When content is an advertisement, it must comply with all relevant rules, including those around truthfulness and honesty. In addition, the rules for health and beauty products include rules relates to medical claims, in section 11 of the ASAI Code.

There are also rules in the food and non-alcoholic beverages section of the ASAI Code relating to health and nutritional claims for food products, which includes supplements.

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