My activism isn’t led by battle cry

For years now I have submitted complaints to Trading Standards and the Advertising Standards Authority about dodgy health claims I see people making to advertise their products.

I’d personally rather make sure that people and companies advertise their products or services in a way that complies with CAP codes (advertising codes). Even if it’s something a bit silly like Reiki, as long as they’re not making false claims in their adverts then I think that’s fine… but for some that just isn’t enough. There exists, it seems, a sort of mob mentality where “quacks” getting silenced is the ultimate goal for skeptic activists. A sort of ‘who can shut up the most woo-pedallers?’ contest, if you will.

When I complained to the Advertising Standards Authority that the Healing on the Streets group in Bath were making potentially harmful claims that had no supporting evidence, the goal was to make sure those false claims were no longer made. It didn’t bother me too much if the group carried on praying for people or believing that god could heal, as long as they weren’t misleading people or using it as a front for recruitment. So when the outcome was a change to the literature used by the group I was satisfied, but others weren’t because the group had not been shut down completely. It was baffling.

Over time I’ve grown more and more concerned and dismayed with prominent skeptic activists regarding the way in which they engage with those they do not agree with, especially on Social Media websites like Twitter. Every night my twitter feed is full of the sarcastic, dismissive and rude tweets of skeptics with a passive aggressive full stop in front of the username of the intended recipient.

Messages formed out of 140 characters or less that dismiss people as stupid or as wicked con artists are thrown into an echo-chamber where good debate goes to die. It’s pointless chest beating and it has driven a feeling of deep disconnect between me and those I used to consider skeptic activism allies. The very people who used to inspire me to do what I do.

As a consumer and as a member of society I am aware that I have the ability to try and instigate change where I think it is needed most, but I have no desire to use that ability – that consumer power – to shut people down or to silence them. I don’t want to belittle people for thinking differently than I do, especially when research has shown that it often does nothing at all to change minds.

Instead I want to empower other consumers and make sure that we all have the ability to make properly informed choices when it comes to what we purchase or subscribe to. When I trained as a constituency campaigner with Oxfam UK it was so that I could gain the skills that would enable me to use the political power I have as a citizen to make a positive change, no matter how small it might be. I see using the Advertising Standards Authority, Trading Standards, OFCOM and other regulatory bodies similarly – they should be used as tools for positive change, rather than as weapons used for enforcement.

It is the latter approach that creates a ‘Them vs. Us’ mentality that I feel “rational people” could do so much more to combat, but ultimately I guess that sneering at silly people, mocking them on Twitter, and waving the ASA complaints form above your head like a sword proves more appealing for those who know they’re right.

3 thoughts on “My activism isn’t led by battle cry

  1. Thanks for this post Hayley. I make a lot (over 50 to date) of Advertising Standards Authority complaints over in New Zealand, and I’ve found myself heading toward sharing the attitude you describe here. I find that my motivation for complaining comes from the fact that I think consumers have the *right* to make an informed decision. Misleading claims in advertisements feel to me like a violation of that right.

    Not everyone has the time or motivation to look into a claim being made about a product before they buy it, and in a perfect world consumers such as ourselves should feel justified in taking advertisers at their word. I see my complaints as an effort to bring the real world closer to that ideal, where informed consent would be easy to come by.

    I often find that the companies whose ads I complain about have the option to shift their focus so as not to be misleading. For example, I have seen some sellers of “amber teething necklaces” rebrand them as simple jewellery, without implying any therapeutic effects (although in this particular case there can still be safety concerns). For other businesses though, such as those that are based entirely on the promotion of homeopathy, there may be no such option.

    Despite jokes like homeopathy being rebranded as confectionery, I do not expect anyone to honestly sell homeopathic products without intending to create what is, whether intentional or not, a misleading representation in the minds of their customers.

    To be honest I’m not sure what I would consider an ideal outcome of a complaint regarding businesses like that, although I do think the removal of any misleading claims from advertisements should at the very least be a part of an ideal outcome.

    Although in my ideal world I do not expect these businesses would exist, I don’t know that trying to close them down is a good approach. It’s the culture that needs to change, after all. I can at least hope that news of complaints like mine and yours can help effect that change.

  2. I think your approach is the right one. In the several run-ins that i have encountered it always seems to be me that walks away emotionally stressed out and frustrated without a single wisp of a change of view point from the ‘others’. I’ve decided to back all efforts to keep religion and woo out of schools and to use the law to limit and stop illegal practices from groups or individuals that transgress the laws and regulations. Less confrontation and more regulation.

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