Making a complaint
This section gives you the knowledge, tools and resources with which to find misleading claims and to effectively challenge them.
Click on the links below or use the menus above.
- Why complain? explains why we need to challenge misleading claims.
- Where to find misleading claims gives ideas about where you are likely to come across, well, misleading claims.
- Once you found claims you think are misleading, How to complain guides you through what you need to do to.
- Since there are many organisations — both statutory and voluntary — you can complain to, Who to complain to gives some advice.
- We also provide a variety of Tools and resources that will help you to do all this.
- Remember to tell us about your successes and any failures!
Misleading claims about healthcare products and services appear on many providers' websites as well as in promotional leaflets, posters, brochures, newspapers and magazines. People are misled into paying for products and therapies of unproven efficacy. Some of these aren't even scientifically plausible and some of them could be harmful.
We should be free to choose what we spend our money on but it should be an informed choice, not one based on misrepresentation — deliberate or otherwise — by those who stand to profit.
This misinformation will not disappear by itself: it needs to be challenged and our experience has shown that it is possible for ordinary members of the public to use the regulation that is already in place to ensure that those making misleading claims are held to account.
We hope to give you the information, tools and resources to enable you to spot misleading claims and to do something about them.
Read How to complain to find out more.
There are several steps you can take to challenge misleading claims:
- Find claims you think are misleading
- Confirm they are misleading
- Find out if the claims are covered by any standards or regulator
- Find out who is making the claims and check if he/she is a member of a statutory or voluntary regulator
- Gather information and decide how to challenge the claims
- Write your complaint
- Submit your complaint
- Tell us the results!
Find claims you think are misleading
This is easy. They are all around us!
See Where to find misleading claims for further details.
Confirm they are misleading
This could be easy or difficult. Many claims are obviously misleading because they are scientifically implausible (eg claims about homeopathy, crystal healing, ear candles). Others might take a bit of research to see whether the claims have already been tested. But remember that in most cases you do not have to show claims are misleading: all you have to do is question claims that might be misleading. It is up to the regulator to make a decisions whether they breach the rules, regulations and laws.
However, although you may find good evidence that specific claims are inaccurate, the regulator or the organisation overseeing the advert will have rules about what is and what isn't considered to be misleading and will only be concerned about whether these rules are being breached.
As so many of the misleading claims that appear in advertising to the public are made by practitioners of complementary and alternative therapies, you may want to find out more about these. The following books are recommended (with links to amazon.co.uk):
There are many websites that deal with alternative therapies and misleading claims:
See Robert Carroll's The Skeptic's Dictionary for excellent information on all sorts of alternative therapies
See ebm-first — a comprehensive resource of what alternative health practitioners might not tell you
It is also worthwhile checking previous decisions by regulators to see if there have been any similar cases in the past. But don't limit your searches to just the regulator you think is relevant to your complaint; you may be able to learn from what other regulators have said and be able to improve the effectiveness of your complaint.
Find out who is making the claims
It will usually be obvious who is making the claim, whether it is an individual or a private or public company. If a product or service is being sold, then you should have an address or contact details. However, some investigation may be required. Most newspapers and magazines require advertisers to give their details in the advert, but you may come across some adverts on the Internet where it's not clear who is responsible for the website.
Coming soon: How to find out who the directors of a company are.
Check if he/she is a member of a statutory or voluntary regulator
Who you submit a complaint to depends on what the claim is, where it is being made and who is making it.
Read Who to complain to for details of the different organisations you can complain to.
Remember that if the misleading claims you have found fall within the remit of more than one regulator, you can complain to them all.
Write your complaint
Read Writing a complaint for advice and helpful hints.
Complaints should be made in your own name: even though you may have used advice from our website, please do not suggest that you are submitting a complaint on our behalf or imply that you are associated with the Nightingale Collaboration.
Submit your complaint
This can be done either on the Internet or by letter, depending on what the organisation provides.
Remember to keep copies of everything you send them.
Tell us the results!
Tell us so we can highlight your results to others. Even if your complaint was not successful, tell us so others can benefit and make future challenges more successful.
If the organisation you are complaining to has a form or webform, it will guide you through the process and make sure you supply all the details they need.
Otherwise, you need to answer the following questions:
- Who is making the complaint?
- Where are the claims being made?
- Who is making the claims?
- What are the claims you think are misleading?
- Why do you think the claims are misleading and what might the effect be? (Optional)
Who is making the complaint?
Obvious, perhaps, but worth mentioning: make sure the organisation you are complaining to know who you are so they can reply to you. Also, many organisations will not accept anonymous complaints.
Complaints should be made in your own name: even though you may have used advice from us or our website, please do not suggest that you are submitting a complaint on our behalf or imply that you are associated with the Nightingale Collaboration.
Where are the claims being made?
You need to give sufficient information to clearly identify where the claims were made. If it was a leaflet, give the full title of the leaflet, the publisher and anything else given on the leaflet. If it was a newspaper or magazine, give the title, publisher, etc and say which issue it was and which page the claims were on.
Ideally, you should provide a copy of the leaflet, advert, webpage, etc. This could be sent in the post or scanned in and attached to an email or web form.
If the claims were on a website, provide the URL of the page or pages and ideally a cached copy of them in case they change.
Read Capturing web pages for further details.
Who is making the claims?
Give as much detail as possible. If it's an advert, give the advertiser's name or trading name. If it's not clear, you could spend a bit of time trying to find out, but don't worry if you can't. Resources that might help are business directories, Companies House, and, for websites, the domain name registrant.
Read How to find out who owns a website for further details.
What are the claims you think are misleading?
In a simple advert, it should be easy to highlight the words you think are problematic. If you think it is necessary, explain what either you think the words mean or what you think other members of the public will take the words to mean.
You could list the sections or paragraphs of the code of conduct or whatever rules you think the advertiser has not followed, but this will not always be necessary. For example, the Advertising Standards Authority are experts in their own code so there is no need to highlight section 3.1 of the CAP Code.
However, there may be good reasons for highlighting sections/paragraphs other than the obvious one: if a code of conduct talks about bringing the 'profession' into disrepute, abusing the trust of the public, doing only what's in the public's best interests or similar words, it might be worth highlighting that you think the person you are complaining about has fallen foul of those as well.
Why do you think the claims are misleading and what might the effect be?
Briefly explain why you think the claims are misleading. This will frequently be simply that you don't believe they are capable of substantiation by the advertiser (or anyone else). For the ASA, that is all you have to say, but it may be worth expanding your reasons for complaints to other organisations.
Some useful stock phrases:
- Because of the lack of a plausible mechanism of action for and/or the lack of any robust clinical evidence to support these claims, I believe these claims are highly misleading.
- I believe these claims may delay or dissuade people, particularly the gullible or vulnerable, with serious medical conditions from seeking proper and possibly urgently needed medical advice and treatment.
- I believe these claims abuse the trust of members of the public and exploits their lack of experience or knowledge about health.
Putting pen to paper
Writing the complaint is very straightforward, regardless of who you are complaining to — just follow this simple guidance.
- Keep it simple and to the point.
- Keep it impersonal and factual.
You're not writing the story of your life, so just focus on precisely what you think is misleading.
Make your complaint logical and easy for someone to follow what you're saying. A good way of doing this is to follow the advice of the Plain English Campaign:
Many organisations provide an online form for complaints (eg the ASA), but these can sometimes be inadequate or difficult to use. Organisations should also accept complaints made by email or letter, but some will reject anything not on their specific form.
Keep a copy of your complaint and a copy of any leaflet, newspaper, etc so you can refer to it in the event of any query. Some organisations, such as the ASA, do not send you a copy of what you submitted in their webform.
You don't need to look very far — they are all around us:
- National press
- Local press, including free papers
- Specialist magazines (eg those dealing with alternative therapies and psychics)
- Leaflets dropped through your letterbox or handed out in the high street
- High street shops (eg 'health food' shops, those selling chinese herbal medicines), either leaflets or in-store advertising
- Local alternative therapy clinics (eg homeopaths, chiropractors), either leaflets or in-store advertising
- Mail order catalogues
- Radio and TV adverts
Look for statements that say things like:
- "We treat…"
- "People come to us with…"
- "Our patients have found it useful for…"
- "Our qualified therapists are highly experienced in…"
- "We are consulted for many conditions…"
- "We commonly see patients with…"
…or just a list of one or more medical conditions.
If there is no robust evidence of a therapy's efficacy and especially if it is scientifically implausible in the first place, any claim that it can be used to treat any medical conditions is questionable.
Where you find the claims and what the claims are will determine what you can do about them and who you complain to.
Read How to complain to find out what to do next.
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