Written by: Heather Clemenceau
Advertisements have a huge influence on people. So it follows that advertisers must be careful about what they display to the audience in ad copy and on websites. Despite the number of laws to curb misleading advertisements to protect consumer interests, the public is often left to fend for themselves in the marketplace.
A few months ago I complained to Advertising Standards Canada about “exuberant” claims made about a donkey milk skin cream and soap, whose website suggested that the products “slow down the aging process,” among other dubious claims.
The first red flag I saw when I began reading the claims on the Shamâne website was the logical fallacy of the “appeal to antiquity”– claiming that something has powerful properties because some ancient civilization used it. The fact that ancient Egyptians used donkey milk (if indeed they actually did) is irrelevant to the claim that the products are clinically effective, and we can’t determine whether something is good or bad just because it has ancient origins. Treating disease by ingesting animal feces or applying it to your skin is also an ancient remedy (that also helps to ward off bad spirits!), but I don’t see that catching on in the same way. We’re smarter now – we would not likely treat nosebleeds or cataracts with warm dung!
Now, in my opinion, there is absolutely no way that donkey milk was used in Europe during the Dark Ages for its anti-bacterial or disease curing properties. The germ theory of medicine was not developed at the time, and was not used clinically until about 1870, so the fact that a French naturalist supposedly used it in the 1700s is not proof of anything. But let’s say we give the company the benefit of the doubt and say that donkey milk was used throughout the Dark Ages in Europe for its anti-bacterial properties. When you think “anti-bacterial” do you really think of the Dark Ages as a good example? Back then, everyone pretty much had a life expectancy of around 30 years, so clearly whatever they knew wasn’t helping them much. The whole of the modern argument by Shamâne rests on anecdotal evidence made by people who lived anywhere from 460 BC – 1804 (Hippocrates and Buffon, the French naturalist). The second they bring up modern research, though, they become vague and non-specific. Why not say “in recent years, researchers at Harvard have shown that…” or something like that? The reason is simple. There actually isn’t any modern research that supports the claims. There are lots of proposed anti-aging remedies, but as far as I know, no treatment has yet been proven to slow the aging process or extend the human lifespan. People can and do find anecdotal evidence to support any product, even a harmful one. And studies are only useful if the methods are valid and the results have been reviewed (and hopefully replicated).
The real problems I have with products with donkey milk in them is the exaggeration of their effects and the use of an animal product that has no business being added. If the only claim that proponents of the product made was “this smells good, and makes your skin soft” (and it doesn’t harm any animals in the process) I wouldn’t be writing this at all. That’s not the case, though. The benefits of donkey milk cream and soap are exaggerated because exaggeration sells.
So……….Advertising Standards Canada wrote back to me:
“We carefully reviewed the advertising in light of your concerns and contacted the advertiser for additional information. We were informed by the advertiser that being from France, he was not completely aware of the Canadian regulations regarding Skin Care Non-Therapeutic Claims. However, the advertiser informed ASC that it would like to be in compliance with the Guidelines for Non-prescription and Cosmetic Industry Regarding Non-therapeutic Advertising and Labelling Claims and is ready to amend its advertisement accordingly. We have been working actively with the advertiser and provided assistance on how to appropriately amend its advertising to comply with these guidelines. We will keep you informed as soon as the advertisement in question is appropriately amended. “
So ASC made them remove the claim about “slowing down the aging process,” (it’s now gone from the website). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get all the other dubious claims removed, and I wrote back to ASC to ask why it was OK to claim a product was hypo-allergenic without providing proof, they replied with this qualificaton from the government’s consumer product safety guidelines:
“’Hypoallergenic’ is neither a legal nor a scientific term. It simply means that the manufacturer has chosen ingredients to produce a finished product with minimum potential for causing allergy. This does not guarantee that the product will not cause an allergic reaction in some individuals, since people are allergic to a wide range of substances. There are no non-allergenic cosmetics. If you experience an allergic reaction to a cosmetic, try switching to a different brand.”
I’m still unsatisfied with this response, because it basically means that anyone can claim their product is hypo-allergenic without evidence. Nobody knows whether the ingredients in these products truly reduce the potential for reactions.
Why do I think going after these product claims is important? By not reporting suspect advertising claims, you allow businesses to continue profiting by misleading consumers with their exultant language, whether on purpose or by accident. Even if you were not fooled by a misleading advertisement, reporting false claims may prevent other people from being misled. Even though this is “just” a skin cream/soap, know that suspect claims devalue legitimate products, in particular, those with plant-based ingredients which demonstrate some efficacy and don’t require any animal breeding or suffering.