ASA Adjudicate on Flyer Complaint

In December 2010, a friend received a flyer through their door from a local church (which I covered previously). It told my friend that the truth could set them free, and gave examples of people being “healed” of severe food allergy, autism, death, “broken heart” and broken vertebra by prayer and baptism. I complained about it to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) on three grounds:

  • First, I felt that the claims of miraculous healing were unlikely, and that the advertiser would not be able to substantiate the claims if asked.
  • Second, the advertisement was irresponsible because it might result in people not seeking medical care.
  • Third, it was promoting the idea that attendance at a meeting of the church would result in people being cured of medical conditions.

The ASA (somewhat predictably) declined jurisdiction with regards claims of miracles. This is slightly frustrating from my point of view because they’re making a claim which is easily demonstrated. Either the person had a condition, had the faith intervention and no medical intervention and then didn’t have the condition – in which case a miracle occurred – or one of the criteria is not met and a miracle did not occur.

However, the ASA did consider and adjudicate on the other two issues, and I am pleased to report they found against the advertiser on both counts, and the advertisement is not allowed to appear again.

As a society, we believe it is unacceptable to abuse people emotionally, physically, sexually or by neglect, but it is also wrong to exploit people’s spiritual beliefs. If we do not want to see people being exploited, challenging adverts like this one helps make such behaviour less socially acceptable, and helps to protect the most vulnerable.

This is a step in the right direction: whilst we still cannot apparently challenge falsehoods, we can ensure that religious groups cannot encourage people to act in a way which will have no demonstrable health benefits.


About David Waldock

Open University graduate, health and life science at undergraduate level, science and society at post-graduate. Interested in how the Internet is transforming the ways in which the public(s) engage with science(s). Also interested in "the skeptical movement" as a form of science activism and it's effectiveness in achieving its goals. Interested in the representation of LGB types in science and in the periscience communities. Work for a well known and loved public institution. Views are mine and not necessarily my employers.

10 responses to “ASA Adjudicate on Flyer Complaint”

  1. Charles Plummer says :

    I made a similar complaint to the ASA last year about a group of christian “healers” in my home town of Bath. They have been handing out leaflets for many months claiming to be able to heal a vast number of very serious conditions including cancer. I understand that this particular claim is unlawful under an obscure piece of legislation – The Cancer Act.

    Surprisingly, the “work” of this group has been endorsed by a local Lib Dem councillor.

    The ASA responded by telling me that they would look into the complaint, but that they would not be able to tell me the outcome! How did you go about getting feedback from the ASA about your complaint?

    • davidwaldock says :

      ASA have always told me about the outcome so I’m surprised to hear that. Sorry, I don’t have more information, perhaps someone else does?

  2. rod says :

    would that we could have all false claims made by religeous groups banned such as the promise of eternal life and many other ridiculous statements. Rod.

  3. Ron Lewis says :

    Hi David,

    Congratulations on your recent success! The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) are my favourite penpals, so perhaps I can contribute a few comments.

    You mention that the ASA declined jurisdiction on the issue of miracles. You complained that they church probably couldn’t substantiate the claims that miracles of this type can take place.

    On this point, I think the ASA are correct. They have to adjudicate on what the leaflet actually says, not the wider context. I noticed that the word ‘miracle doesn’t appear anywhere in the leaflet, and neither do any claims about the power of miracles in general.

    The issue, then, is only the five testimonials that actually appear. As you probably know, the ASA’s regulatory code (the CAP code) has special rules for testimonials [1]. The relevant rule is “Claims that are likely to be interpreted as factual and appear in a testimonial must not mislead or be likely to mislead the consumer”. If you had challenged whether the testimonials were misleading, rather than whether miracles in general can be substantiated, the ASA would probably have investigated that challenge.

    Charles Plummer notes that his own complaint disappeared from view without explanation. This is actually a GOOD sign.

    The ASA do not have the resources to formally investigate every complaint they receive. When they think advertising in clearly in breach of the code, and when similar advertising has been banned in the past, the complaint is passed straight to their compliance team. As Charles says, Compliance don’t tell complainants the results of their work. However, they are very effective. Instead of having to wait several months for an adjudication, as David did, the advertising Charles saw would have been removed almost immediately.

    Rod mentions the possibility of getting the ASA to ban a broader range of religious claims. In the case of eternal life, this is not likely to happen – the delivery of your immortal soul to the pearly gates of heaven is not a claim capable of objective substantiation, so it’s outside the ASA’s jurisdiction.


  4. Mike says :

    Hi David – did you get a chance to talk to them to see if it was all true? I would trust your stance more if you could say for CERTAIN that those claims were false just like I would trust the churches stance if they could prove they were CERTAIN of these healings/cures. It just sounds like that you went only by the pamphlet and not actually checked it out yourself. I’m in Chch NZ so I can’t go and check just as much as I can’t really trust what you say.

    • davidwaldock says :

      Hi Mike

      Interesting question.

      First, as I’m sure you’re aware, it’s impossible to prove a negative anyway, so you’re asking if I’ve achieved the impossible, and whilst the Red Queen may find it easy to do several impossible things before breakfast, I am but a humble human being and must, yet again, report that I have failed.

      Second, there isn’t a burden of proof on me, I merely suggested to the ASA that the claims could not be substantiated, I do not need to prove they are false for the advertiser to asked to demonstrate that they are true. The ASA declined to explore the possibility of substantiating the claim, so this wasn’t even the basis on which the ASA upheld the two complaints they did investigate. However, I can say with some certainty that to date, despite having attended a number of services of various churches of this type, I have not yet seen a healing which has resulted in the reversal of severe pathophysiological abnormalities; neither has anyone else. Now, it’s possible that the one time we’re not looking that miracles galore are occurring, but it’s far more likely that the claims are, if not false, at least misguided and are definitely extremely unlikely.

      Third, I have some knowledge and experience of the practice of medicine, and so find the claims as they are made in the advert unlikely in the extreme, and frankly distasteful. I’ll explore them one by one:

      • I’m not sure what “a severe food allergy” is – I know what a food allergy is, but I’m not sure I’d know how to differentiate between mild anaphylaxis killing someone and a severe form of the same reaction. However, it is testable: Russell will have had a skin prick allergen test performed by an immunologist which showed either classic wheal and flare reaction (or caused an anaphylactoid response) or did not, thus we have a definitive diagnosis of an allergy. After the prayer intervention (and nothing BUT the prayer intervention) this test can be repeated under the same conditions (and because we know he is allergic, it’s vital this done with the appropriate emergency equipment to hand); if he has been cured, there will be no reaction. Easy to substantiate the claim; interestingly, I am not aware of any such reports in the literature.
      • Autism is not a disease, it’s not something from which one is cured. The autism spectrum ranges all the way from neurotypical to people who find it difficult to function in society without support, and we’re all on the spectrum, somewhere. The fact that they’re willing to see it as something from which one must be cured is to me distasteful. However, it’s easy to prove: before and after reports from clinical psychologists using an assessment checklist, along with evidence that no other interventions have been attempted. Of course, in both cases, if Russell has had any other interventions between the before and after assessments it would be impossible to differentiate between the intervention and supernatural healing.
      • Brain haemorrhage – which isn’t terribly descriptive, but this is advertising not a medical journal – can be an extremely complex and devastating injury, and I have no doubt that it can kill in a number of different ways: the brain could herniate, the breathing centres could be damaged etc… However, dying three times is unlikely, and is claim that Christians don’t make about Jesus, let alone mere mortals such as Granville. It’s possible that Granville went into cardiac arrest three times, and this was successfully reversed by a precordial thump, heart massage, cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, drugs or defibrillation. However, death is generally defined either as a cessation of electrical activity (as measured by an EEG) in the neo-cortex, or as cessation of electrical activity in the whole brain, and is either recognised by doing the EEG along with other neurological assessments, or as identifying conditions incompatible with life (eg. hemicorpectomy, decapitation, decomposition etc…). And, again, I have seen no reliable report of anyone spontaneously recovering circulation without neurological deficits purely as a result of prayer. Even if I go with the most charitable analysis – that Granville arrested three times after a brain injury, which were successfully treated by doctors using appropriate medical interventions, and someone was praying at the same time – ascribing causation to the prayer is somewhat problematic. In short: how could we tell the difference between a deity healing Granville and the efforts put in by the medical staff?
      • Regards the young girl, I am incredibly pleased that she survived despite a condition which would normally be considered incompatible with life. Medical professionals aren’t always correct; they recognise patterns and draw conclusions from those patterns and advise patients (and in this case, parents) based on their knowledge and experience. Merely telling a parent that a condition is incompatible with life (and many neonatal cases with genetic conditions sadly don’t survive long at all) does not make her survival impossible. I assume that the girl got the medical medical treatment available, and I’m much more likely to ascribe success to the tireless efforts of the doctors, nurses, radiographers and other health professionals who work in neonatal intensive care units than I am the invisible hand of a supernatural being responding to prayer. Particularly when the supernatural intervention would be indistinguishable from the success of the medical interventions.
      • Obviously, losing a sibling ‘before their time’ is tragic in any circumstances (including drug addiction) is emotionally traumatic. However, I have yet to see any medical papers describing a cardiac syndrome called ‘broken heart’ which can be ‘cured’. I am however familiar with the process of grieving, and know exactly how traumatic and painful that can be, and I know that it is best treated with time, and the opportunity for the person to acknowledge, understand and come to terms with their feelings. There are details of Rachael’s ‘healing’ which are missing: how quickly did this healing occur, what else was happening when the healing happened, to what extent can causality between the religious conversion and the healing be established. After all, lots of people turn to religion in times of emotional difficult and ascribe overcoming the situation to the religion, and there are massive benefits to social support, informal peer counselling and a new psychological focus. However, again, even if we had all the details in front of us, we would not be able to differentiate between natural and supernatural causes.
      • Broken vertebrae are a common result of road traffic incidents, and can certainly leave people in chronic pain. However, the vertebra (a bone) will typically have been worked on by surgeons in order to ensure its stability, and part of this will have been a series of X-rays and CT scans which will clearly document the injury. There is then typically a long period of rehabilitation, including physiotherapy, occupational therapy, pain clinics and suchlike which will have had the aim of restoring the maximum of functionality to Dan’s life. Now, if Dan’s baptism experience ‘healed’ him, there are a number of explanations. It could be Dan’s condition was psychological (note: I am not saying something psychological isn’t real and can’t have serious physical symptoms; this is why pain clinics have clinical psychologists working in them) and that the baptism created an psychological event which changed the situation. It could be that the physical act of baptism moved something which was compressing a nerve (or moved the nerve fibre or some variation on a theme). It could be that a supernatural intervention occurred which resulted in the spine being ‘as new’ again. It could be that a supernatural intervention occurred which resulted in the pain being resolved without the spine being restored. It could be that floating in water had a short-term benefit. Without more information we can’t say, but seriously, if the spine had been restored we would already have heard about it because it would have been reported. With regards the other variables, supernatural intervention would be indistinguishable from natural occurrence. My conclusion: it would, unless truly miraculous and obvious [and we haven’t heard of such a report] be impossible to identify it as a miracle.

      Fourth, if the documentation for each of these cases is less than complete (and my experience of claims of miracles is that they are normally based on subjective claims, sometimes dodgy, sometimes extremely dodgy), and it’s impossible to differentiate between natural and supernatural causes, then the ethics of promoting prayer/baptism as the source of a curative cause is extremely dubious (hence the adjudication by the ASA on 2 points). If, however, the church does have extensive documentary proof of the causative effect of their faith, then presenting that to the ASA (for which they were invited and given time) would have negated the ethical concerns.

      On that fourth basis alone – the fact that the people making the claim were unable to present evidence that would have shown the ethical basis of their advert – I am willing to wager substantial amounts of money that the claims cannot be substantiated and are therefore flawed. Coincidentally, in the sense I am using it, flawed does not mean that people lie, or even that they do not believe, merely that in the natural world their claims cannot be supported.

      So, yes, I am CERTAIN (for a given value of certainty, given no assertion can ever be made with 100% certainty) that the claims are false. And you don’t need to trust me, you just need to apply logic, knowledge and statistical likelihoods to the assertions.

      I appreciate your comment; I always like to have to justify my own position 😉

  5. Mike says :

    Cool man, very interesting read. I can understand where you’re coming from. You sound like you def. know your stuff in terms of medical practice etc.
    It’s just that, if it did happen to them (Russell, Granville and the young girl) and you talked to them and you still had the same stance, wouldn’t it then, the stance you made, be more solid? Did the pamphlet go into much detail? It would seem to me that you wouldn’t be able go into too much detail on an A5?? sized paper (I’m just guessing here) whereas in medical text books/journals there is enough room to go into a lot of detail and then you could draw a logical medical conclusion. But if you just went on a pamphlet, it would seem a bit unfair to draw a conclusion on nothing much. Unless you checked it out and talked to these people, how would you know for sure? I would think to draw a logical and well-grounded decision you would need both sides of the story. You obviously have a lot of one and only some of the other.

    You wrote – “However, I can say with some certainty that to date, despite having attended a number of services of various churches of this type, I have not yet seen a healing which has resulted in the reversal of severe pathophysiological abnormalities; neither has anyone else”

    These people seem to have experienced these healings so it would be unfair to say that no-one else has and you obviously haven’t been to a church of this type or else you would/could have possibly seen it when you attended.

    Would you actually go to one of their meetings, talk to whoever is on the pamphlet first hand, and then make a logical and fair decision based on what you saw and what you already know?

    • davidwaldock says :

      There are two issues with that approach.

      The first is that their perception of events may not include all of the factors relevant to assess the claim. I, by the way, have no doubt that the individuals in question (who I am sure are lovely, genuine, honest people) believe that they had supernatural life-changing events happen to them. Indeed, I have in the past spoken to such people whilst a regular attendee of similar religious institution, and I don’t see any reason to believe that these people would be fundamentally different to them. Assuming that the church has at least not-misrepresented their view, I am not sure what I’d get out of talking to them (apart from possibly concreting a couple of views, namely that desperate people will believe anything and that evidence can make very little headway against faith).

      The second is that no-one has, on invitation, presented evidence that the claims can be substantiated, specifically in this instance or broadly. I far from the first person to question to the authenticity of miracle/faith healings. As yet, no-one has adduced evidence to support the claims, and have identified flaws ranging from outright dishonesty to misattribution and faith-in-the-face-of-evidence. At what point does it become reasonable to assume claims are flawed? At what point do we accept that the burden of proof is on the claimants not those who are sceptical of the assertions?

      After all, I would pretty unlikely to believe my neighbour if he said he had a fire-breathing dragon in his garage, regardless of how much I spoke with him…

      All that said, it would make an interesting research project to explore the ethnography and social epistemology of people who believe they have been supernaturally healed…

  6. Mike says :

    Cheers David – good chatting with you. This was my very first online debate with a total stranger. Thanks, It was educational and great to hear your point of view. And yes I would have to agree that it would be a very interesting research project.

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