Saturday, 25 October 2014

Hots Potato

This post has been a long time in the making dating back to an email thread we received from one of our SitP attendees in July 2012 but a recent occurrence shows the issue isn't going away any time soon.

Shortly before that time the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) had upheld a complaint made by Hayley Stevens against an organisation called “Healing on the Streets – Bath” who had been handing out leaflets in May 2011: Our correspondent had found a similar organisation, The Crossway using similar wording, on Harborne High Street, Birmingham and, being the good skeptic that they are, had made a similar complaint to the ASA against them.

For those unfamiliar with Healing on the Streets (HOTS) it was originally an organisation founded in Coleraine, Northern Ireland in 2005 to “simply invite people to sit on chairs so we can pray for them”. Okay, that could be thought of as merely a little bit strange until you realise that they claim that “God loves you and can heal you” presumably through the power of their prayer. Many organisations have bought into the HOTS ethos which can be extremely lucrative (HOTS – Bath have taken in £137,000 in the last 4 years).

It is a well known phenomenon that any interventions can have a placebo effect and many people may assume that sugar pills, saline injections and sham therapies of all kinds may be responsible for an improvement in fairly trivial conditions. They ignore the many reasons that a condition may improve in favour of a belief that it was caused by the intervention. One classic case is that treatment for a long-standing condition which comes and goes, such as a bad back, will be sought when pain and immobility is highest. The fact that the sufferer has a lifetime's experience of knowing that the condition improves with time (and without intervention) is thrown out of the window if they take some pointless pills, or receive some other attention (such as being prayed for) when it is at its worst.

This wouldn't matter too much if people working under the HOTS banner limited their attention to bad backs and similar minor and self-limiting ailments but they don't. The leaflet given to our correspondent asked if people suffered from “Back Pain, Arthritis, MS, Addiction, Cancer, Ulcers, Depression, Allergies, Migraines, Asthma, Paralysis, Crippling Disease, Phobias or any other sickness, illness or injury” and offered “Healing on Harborne High Street”.


So anything then. Pneumonia, diabetes, sepsis, meningitis, AIDS, Ebola? You name it, they'll pray for you. Needless to say relying on prayer over medical expertise can have dreadful consequences.

 
In their adjudication the ASA noted that HOTS – Bath had not provided any evidence that they, or anyone else, could heal using prayer and upheld Hayley's complaint about the leaflet adjudging the claims to be both misleading and irresponsible. They also adjudged that the ads could discourage essential treatment for conditions for which medical supervision should be sought. This adjudication made international news.

In the summation for action the ASA said:

The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told HOTS not to make claims which stated or implied that, by receiving prayer from their volunteers, people could be healed of medical conditions. We also told them not to refer in their ads to medical conditions for which medical supervision should be sought.”

So pretty much cut and dried then. Another organisation had used almost exactly the same wording with a list of medical conditions they have no hope of healing so our correspondent awaited the adjudication against The Crossway.

They didn't get one.

The ASA contacted our correspondent saying that the issue had gone to their Compliance Team, an arm of the ASA which deals with repeat offenders. When this was queried they were told that:

The Crossway’s website demonstrates, in our view, that they are distributing the ads that you have objected to under the name of Healing on the Streets: http://www.thecrossway.org.uk/healing-on-the-streets/. Also, Healing on the Streets’ own website shows that they are a national organisation, who can assist church groups to set up local branches: http://healingonthestreets.com/. The similarities between The Crossway’s literature and that of other leaflets produced by Healing on the Streets, in addition to their use of the blue “Healing” banner, which is used by other H.O.T.S. groups, also suggests that they are a local group who are endorsed by the national H.O.T.S. organisation.



In the course of their response to this complaint, our Compliance team will contact The Crossway to inform them that the advertising they are handing out is in breach of our Code, but we would consider that the advertiser is Healing on the Streets. We will also contact them and demonstrate that a local group affiliated to them is still using adverts that are not compliant with our Code.”

This would be fine if it worked however it appears that it had already happened and this was already a repeat offence:

Furthermore the message still didn't get through and it looks like it won't any time soon:


(October 2012, Oxford)

(October 2014, Bishop's Stortford)

The latest breach was last weekend.

Although we have been keeping our eyes open for breaches (posted on Twitter or Facebook for instance) it is inconceivable that there aren't some we've missed and indeed a much larger number that won't have been spotted or posted at all. Also an appeal against the original complaint confirmed that the websites of these different groups running HOTS activities do not fall under the ASA's jurisdiction so HOTS could not even appear on the ASA's Non-Compliant Online Advertisers List.

We know that some of these breaches have not been reported to the ASA. Of those that have you will find no public record of them being dealt with by the ASA as they have not been adjudicated upon. The ASA has a system of reporting “Informally Resolved Cases” whereby an advertiser agrees to stop using certain wording in their adverts but it appears that this is also not being used. It's almost as if they don't want these further breaches to be mentioned anywhere. Indeed, our correspondent received this from the ASA when asking if the Harborne breach could be publicised:

As the previous adjudication was made public, we have no recourse to prevent you from making our response public, should you so wish. I would like to point out of course, that any large scale public disclosure of the breach could potentially affect the advertiser’s willingness to comply with our Codes, as part of the ongoing compliance work we are doing with regard to Healing on the Streets.”

We can only hope, that due to this blogpost, any willingness of HOTS organisations to comply with the ASA's codes hasn't been damaged too much.



A small aside: 

Although this issue seems a bit complicated the initial complaint by our correspondent took only 10 minutes and many issues of dodgy advertising are cut-and-dried. Also, anyone reporting such issues are guaranteed anonymity by the ASA by law. We have continued this in this blogpost by not naming our correspondent at their request.

We are currently setting up a Birmingham Skeptics Activists strand and one of our possible aims may be to police the West Midlands area to weed out dodgy advertisers such as this.

If you think you can spare the occasional 10 minutes then please consider giving us a shout.