‘Two quick sprays to your tongue release the natural energy you need to find inner calm again. Restoring your centre and focus, even after you’ve reached the end of your tether. With the natural formula created by Dr Bach, in a bottle sized to fit any handbag, Rescue Remedy is the calming exercise you can do any time, anywhere. Look for Rescue Remedy at leading pharmacies, health food and grocery stores.’
Or so I read on a London Underground train earlier this week. The claim was made on an advertising placard posted above passengers’ heads. I took down the words of the claim for later study. This claim is not true. The strongest boast conceivably consistent with the truth is that two quick sprays to the tongue may release the natural energy we need to find inner calm again. There may be individuals for whom, and there may be circumstances in which, whatever is contained in Dr Bach’s Rescue Remedy spray does bring calm, centredness and inner focus. But there will be others for whom it does not; otherwise most of the troubles of the human race would be over.
So why do the rules — ‘Legal? Decent? Honest? Truthful?’ — policed by the Advertising Standards Authority permit the placing of such claims on public transport? I suppose the basis on which this ad has passed the test is that the claim amounts to what is called a ‘puff’: the sort of statement which is plainly not meant to be taken literally and so runs little risk of seriously deceiving many readers. Politicians make puffs all the time (‘One cross on the ballot paper — a nation reborn’ — T. Blair, 1997) but the practice is also sanctioned, up to a point, in commercial advertising. Persil may not always wash whiter, Heineken may not always refresh the parts other beers cannot reach, and Disprin will only bring ‘fast and effective pain relief’ in a limited range of circumstances, but people know this. Manufacturers can rely on the customer to make allowances for certain kinds of hyperbole, so the burden of proof is lower.
My impression is that the ‘natural’ health product industry — ‘alternative’ medicine, ‘health’ or ‘organic’ foods, and the makers of homeopathic remedies — believe themselves to be under a lower burden of proof of effectiveness than applies to their commercial competitors in the conventional pharmaceutical and food industries. Without implying (and I am not) that all their products are ‘quack’ remedies, I would suggest that in the claims they make they think they can avail themselves of some of the advertising leeway that quack medicine has traditionally been allowed. They think that we consumers apply to the claims of ‘natural’ products a lower standard of truthfulness than we would to the claims of other products; we expect a greater degree of hyperbole; we are not therefore deceived; and they are not therefore deceivers.
I think it is time to challenge this assumption. Brussels is doing so, and I applaud the move. The Daily and Sunday Telegraphs have been making their usual song and dance about the threat posed to Britain’s health food and alternative medicine industry by the European Union, because EU rules are said to outlaw the claims made by certain familiar and much-loved products, or to require them to test and prove them first, just as the conventional pharmaceutical industry is required to do. But why not?
The ‘natural’ products industry is trying to have its cake and eat it. With increasing stridency over the years (and some pretty sophisticated campaigning and lobbying techniques) the industry has been demanding that it be taken more seriously, that family doctors stop discriminating against homeopathic remedies, that supermarkets make their shelves more hospitable to organic foods, and that the National Health Service fund a range of ‘alternative’ treatments which are not at present available on prescription.
Their argument has force. No doubt conventional medicine has discriminated against new ideas, for professional conservatism is perennial. And if ‘natural’ remedies work, then there can be no argument against making them available to patients on the same basis as conventional drugs are. But in that case the purveyors of these products must submit themselves to the same disciplines as apply to their non-alternative competitors. The consumer would then be in a better position to judge and make choices.
Were Pfizer, for instance, to advertise on the London Underground a treatment for cancer framed in similar terms to that ad for Dr Bach’s Rescue Remedy’s treatment for stress, I would argue that the Pfizer ad would be a cruel deception on vulnerable people. That is because we associate with the names of well-known drugs companies a certain rigour in their claims. It would be to the advantage not only of the customer but also of the makers of those ‘natural’ products which really do work, if the same rigour became associated with alternative medicine and food.
Otherwise — and this really is a modern danger — the industry is at risk of becoming an adjunct to a new religion whose key article of faith is defined by the word ‘natural’. I detest that word. It is one of the most dishonest adjectives of our times. It should be ranked alongside words like ‘soul’, ‘spirit’, ‘faith’, ‘evil’ and even ‘deity’ in the pantheon of terms sprayed about by people who, if challenged to say what the expression actually means, would be at a loss to reply — or would reply with a synonym rather than an explanation.
What does ‘natural’ mean? Salt is an effective disinfectant for wounds: is salt therefore ‘natural’ or is it ‘chemical’? Lime is an effective treatment for acid grasslands which you can harrow out of a hill or have delivered in sacks by a lorry: is the former treatment therefore a branch of organic farming, and the latter the application of a chemical fertiliser? All farming is ‘unnatural’: only hunter-gathering is ‘natural’. Are the equatorial penguins on the Galapagos Islands ‘natural’ because they arrived on an iceberg, or ‘unnatural’ because it was a ‘freak’ iceberg? If ‘natural’ refers to a world untouched by any moulding hand, then civilisation itself, and all the material and cultural changes to human life that come with it, is unnatural. None of these changes is possible without interference in ‘nature’ thus defined.
In truth, the word ‘natural’ is one gigantic con. Let the Advertising Standards Authority require manufacturers to agree and stick to a definition, or ban it for ever from the advertising lexicon.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.