Another Kind of Fake News: Covert Marketing As Academic Research

Fake news and bad reporting (faithless journalism, perhaps) have been in the news pretty extensively since the election, and folks are trying to detangle trust, knowledge, and facts from fake news and click-bait headlines. One topic I haven’t seen addressed much is news around science articles – oh, I see the discussion of click-bait headlines and the flipflops of EGGS GOOD/BAD/WHO KNOWS. But what I don’t see so much of is a discussion of author affiliation.

For example, the Washington Post published a Wellness article about choline last week that caught my eye. There were an awful lot of claims being made about this supposed wonder-nutrient we don’t get enough of, and reading the original article seemed like a good idea. So I did.

Now, something that might not occur to folks is a normal part of reading academic articles for me: looking at author affiliations and disclosures for conflicts-of-interest. And in this case, it didn’t take long to find one. Sure, the first and corresponding author seemed okay on the surface (a professor of nutrition at George Mason), but the second author? Oh that second author.

That second author, a Victor Fulgoni the Third, is employed by Nutrition Impact, LLC. Who are they, you ask? Well hell, I didn’t know until I looked – but that’s the point. I looked. And I found:

Based in Battle Creek, Mich., USA, Nutrition Impact has helped one client successfully complete a new health claim petition (plant sterol esters and heart disease), helped another client successfully complete a Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act (FDAMA) notification authorizing another new health claim (potassium and blood pressure/stroke), and helped a third client obtain a new nutrient content claim (choline).

Emphasis mine.

This, of course, calls the entire research paper regarding choline into question, because the job of the second of two authors was to make choline a noted and noticeable health claim (almost certainly a supplement company looking to goad consumers into purchases), and the Washington Post fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

Is this fake news? Certainly not of the Facebook-style fake news generators, but it is a kind of fake news: it’s hiding a company agenda in the veneer of academic research, and thus eroding trust in both academic research and science/medical journalism.

The Centers for Disease Control & Hypocrisy?

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a highly contentuous new Vital Signs post on women, pregnancy, and alcohol. The main message was, essentially “don’t drink, ever, if you could possibly be using your uterus to store more than endometrial tissue, fibroids, or intrauterine devices.”

Oh, nice try CDC. I see they finally changed their graphic, a week after the uproar. Unfortunately for them, the internet is forever. This is the original, infuriating, graphic.

Oh, nice try CDC. I see they finally changed their graphic, a week after the uproar. Unfortunately for them, the internet is forever. This is the original, infuriating, graphic.

The impetus for the post appears to be the fact that roughly 52% of pregnancies in America are unplanned, and many women are pregnant for 4 to 6 weeks before they realize they’re pregnant; in that time, there’s the possibility of consuming alcohol.

Now, while studies don’t support the idea that mild drinking while pregnant will harm a fetus, the CDC (and many commentators) have latched onto this rather ludicrous THE RISK IS REAL DON’T TAKE ANY RISK approach for alcohol and pregnany, even going so far as to say it’s not worth risking a single IQ point.[note]Which makes me wonder: really? Given we know that socioeconomic status can affect significantly more than a solitary IQ point, would the recommendation be not having children if you’re below a certain SES? Hmm.[/note] Let’s say we accept this fearmongering approach, ignoring the lack of scientific support for the assertions, ignoring the victim-blaming nature of the infographic,[note]Someone abuse you while you drank? WELL WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? …yeah, the CDC went there.[/note] even ignoring the fact that the CDC conveniently forgot not only a man’s role in conception but the damage drinking can do to sperm and how that can affect fetal development.[note]Designer Chris Giganti kindly provided an updated graphic for men.[/note] Any risk is bad. Wrap pregnant women up in cotton, leave them in a padded room, and don’t let them do anything in case they happen to be in the process of 9.5-odd months of gestation.

Really don’t let them smoke, right? I mean, the risk is real! Smoking while pregnant can cause fetal death, low birth weight, preterm birth, affect the integrity and function of the placenta, is a risk factor for sudden infant death syndrome–oh my gosh! This list is just as bad, if not worse, than the risks of pregnancy and drinking for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Certainly with the release of new data on the risks of smoking and pregnancy–completely separate from the other known risks that smoking has on health, such as cancer, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and death–the CDC has created an equally dire infographic and message saying that the risk is real, so quit smoking, why take the risk?

Yeah, nope.WaitWhatYoureKidding

We didn’t even get an infographic.

Instead, we got a very sensible, calm, factual question-and-answer style statement from the CDC explaining how smoking can harm a pregnancy and baby, the number of women who smoke while pregnant, benefits of quitting, effects of second-hand smoke, and further resouces, with various facts hyperlinked within the article itself.

It’s almost an ideal example of how to present facts about a risk in order to allow women to do an analysis of the situation based on their own agency and autonomy.

The CDC did everything right this week with their publicization of new information about smoking and pregnancy data and risks. As Sarah Richardson and Rene Almeling noted in the Boston Globe on Monday, “[w]omen are constantly bombarded with advice about what to eat and drink and how to behave during pregnancy,” and rather than add to the growing list of simplistic injunctions of an “omg if you do that you will kill the baby” variety, the CDC provided pregnant people with credible information about how to weigh reproductive risks.

And yet. And yet. In the light of last week’s NO RISK IS ACCEPTABLE message regarding women and pregnancy, it’s a stark difference in approach and messaging, and both underscores the hypocrisy of their “ABSTAIN OR ELSE” message regarding alcohol while further damaging their credibility as a trusted source of health information and regulation.

Chobani Learns That HowMatters – and so Does Science

HowMattersChobaniDuring the last Super Bowl, Chobani debuted an advertisement focusing on their use of natural ingredients and limited preservatives. It was an innocuous, somewhat bland, typically feel-good commercial, emphasizing that how things are made matters. And it probably would have gone largely unnoticed by media critics, science writers, and scientists, save for one wee problem:

Chobani extended the thought of the commercial to messages inside yogurt lids. But a commercial is 90 seconds of words and images; a yogurt lid is a lot less space. And in that space, they opted for the fatefully bad phrase:

Nature got us to 100 calories, not scientists. #HowMatters.

They might as well have painted a bullseye on the label.

Since then, Chobani’s social media team mistakenly tried to take the tongue-in-cheek approach, realized it was backfiring even further, apologized, explained they use science, and reassured consumers that the #WordsMatter and they’ve discontinued the lids.
Overall, I’ve seen worse responses from companies, and chances are excellent that this will blow over and be nothing but Google search memories in another week or so. But a couple of us were chatting on Twitter about what Chobani’s ideal response would be, even if it included a bit more risk for the company.[note]Yeah, I’m giving more helpful feedback even without being paid. What can I say, I’m inconsistent and it became an interesting problem to mull.[/note] We spitballed for a bit and then the conversation moved on, but the idea didn’t leave me. During what was undoubtedly procrastination on another project over the weekend, I realized that my ideal? Would be for Chobani to modify their #HowMatters commercial with the opening voice-over from Numb3rs:[note]Numb3rs was an absolutely fantastic TV show created by Cheryl Heuton and Nicolas Falacci. No disrespect or infringements intended in using their voiceover sequence to illustrate how to make something “scary” and “alien” accessible; Numb3rs had several strengths, and one of them was how it demystified science. It remains one of my favourite teaching tools[/note]

Chobani uses science every day:
to pasteurize milk, to tell temperature, to isolate probiotics.
Science is more than formulas or equations;
and it’s not something to be afraid of.
Science is using our minds to solve the biggest mysteries facing food production and safety in America.[note]They could even go for a much cheekier take on the final sentence, although I think it might be too much: “Science is using our minds to solve the biggest mysteries we know–like how to get great-tasting yogurt from farm to factory to your refrigerator.” Note: If you’re from Chobani and reading this, talk to Heuton and Falacci to find out who owns the rights to the Numb3rs sequence and properly secure permissions, okay?[/note]

How does matter, and so does the science behind our yogurt. At Chobani, we’re committed to using the best advances in science to benefit everyone. We’re not saying we’re perfect, but our minds are in the right place.


Chobani is right: how they got to 100 calories matters, and they have a great opportunity to support and boost the positive benefits of science and STEM in America, peeling back the curtain a bit to let people see how science is truly part of everyday life. In a society where fear of chemicals (and thus science) is growing, thanks in large part to misinformation[note]This is not a page of misinformation, but about. I try not to give links to bad information if I can help it.[/note] and lack of education, and when we need more rather than less people interested in STEM, this would be a small but significant gesture of goodwill–and it’d probably generate some positive PR, too.[note]According to David Kroll, Chobani also has a personal apology to all scientists: if you were miffed by their message, follow this link to their customer loyalty contact page. Kroll says, “Simply fill out the form with your name and address and indicate in the message box that you are a scientist who was miffed by their message. You might also consider elaborating with a message like that of commenter memsomerville below. You’ll receive a coupon in the mail.”[/note]

Prop H8 Supporters Continue Their Quest to Look Stupid

Normally, I try for some small modicum of tact. (I can hear you laughing from here, Michael. Shut up.) But this latest tactic from Prop 8 supporters can really only be boiled down as “stupid:”

In another jab at the federal judge who ruled against Proposition 8, sponsors of the gay marriage initiative asked a district court Monday to set aside the ruling on the grounds the judge was in a long-term same-sex relationship that posed a conflict of interest.

Attorneys for ProtectMarriage, the group that sponsored the 2008 ballot initiative, said in a legal motion that Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker, who retired from the San Francisco-based district court earlier this year, had a duty to disclose his relationship and step down before deciding whether a ban on same-sex marriage violated the federal Constitution.

“Judge Walker’s ten-year-long same-sex relationship creates the unavoidable impression that he was not the impartial judge the law requires,” said Andy Pugno, a lawyer for ProtectMarriage. “He was obligated to either recuse himself or provide full disclosure of this relationship at the outset of the case. These circumstances demand setting aside his decision.”

So let me get this straight (heh) – only heterosexual judges can rule on legal cases involving gay civil rights (the right to marry, in this case)? Really? How far does this particular brand of stupid and/or crazy “logic” extend? Does this mean a judge who is married cannot rule on divorce cases? Or does the judge have to be divorced? Which is the conflict there? What if the judge is separated?

If the defendant is African American, is it okay if the judge is African American? What if the plaintiff is Caucasian? What is the acceptable race for the judge? Do we have to find someone who has mixed heritage? Or does that only matter if it’s a civil rights related case?

This is clearly a very complicated matter, and I look forward to Andy Pugno and/or ProtectMarriage stepping forward and offering us clear and uncomplicated flow charts to indicate just who may reside over a trial at any given time.

Analyzing Groupon’s Failure

I feel like people are probably expecting a comment on Groupon’s amazingly over the top, tasteless, offensive advertisement shown during the Super Bowl last night. (Why do I feel like people expect this? Well, I’m Buddhist and I am known for being cranky. It’s not really a large leap there…)

So, yes, I found that Groupon advertisement to be a masterclass in what not to do. For those who missed the advert, here it is:

The copy reads

Mountainous Tibet – one of the most beautiful places in the world. This is Timothy Hutton. The people of Tibet are in trouble, their very culture in jeopardy. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry. And since 200 of us bought on we’re getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15 at Himalayan restaurant in Chicago.

Let’s get the basics out of the way, first. Tibet is in the Himalayas, yes – and because of this, Tibetan cuisine, along with most Himalayan cuisine, doesn’t involve fish. Neither does it involve curry (although Tibetans living in exile in India have added it to their diet).

Facts aside, there are still massive issues here. Putting aside the big one for a minute, the slightly smaller one is the incredibly tone-deaf advertisement creating a situation that suggests all is okay because the displaced, threatened culture can still cook for the White Man. I am not a race scholar by any means, but you don’t need to be one to see the ugly legacy of colonialism echoing in the advertisement.

And then, of course, there is the big issue. The Big Issue. The fact that Groupon is using the genocide of a people to sell it’s services. The occupation of Tibet is considered by many to be one of the grossest examples of human rights violations in the last fifty years. We know that China has imprisoned, beaten, raped, tortured, and killed men and women, monks and nuns, who refuse to renounce their Buddhist beliefs or their allegiance to the Dalai Lama. We know that China has “disappeared” the entire family of the Panchen Lama – at least, the one recognized by the Dalai Lama and other ranking Buddhist monks. China has made it clear that when the current Dalai Lama dies, they will try to instill a puppetmaster in his place – and that they intend to destroy the religion. They have already destroyed countless monasteries, artifacts, and aspects of culture and way of life.

So naturally, Groupon thinks this is a great thing to use to sell it’s services. Because making fun of Darfur would have been dated, and Egypt happened too quickly for them to jump on that train, I suppose. And Groupon did think it was a great thing; from their Twitter feed:

Like standing too close to a rainbow, viewers’ hearts are warmed by #Groupon’s Super Bowl ad. #brandbowl

It was only well after the Tibet advertisement aired that Groupon realized it badly miscalculated; almost an hour after airing, the topic was still trending on Twitter, and the feedback was not positive. Then Groupon posted an additional tweet, which has not yet been supplanted by anything else:

Support Tibet’s largest charity here:

Now, in it’s supposed-defense, prior to airing of any of the advertisements yesterday, Groupon’s Andrew Mason (founder) posted this at it’s site:

The gist of the concept is this: When groups of people act together to do something, it’s usually to help a cause. With Groupon, people act together to help themselves by getting great deals. So what if we did a parody of a celebrity-narrated, PSA-style commercial that you think is about some noble cause (such as ‘Save the Whales’), but then it’s revealed to actually be a passionate call to action to help yourself (as in ‘Save the Money’)?

The actual “Save the Money” link says:

Money is one of our most important natural resources. Sadly, thousands of dollars are wasted every year. Until now.

Finally, celebrities are lining up to spread the word about this important fight. Watch the informative videos below to find out how you can help save the money.

If you save so much money that you feel like saving something else, donate to the four mission-driven organizations below. Groupon is matching donations to make sure they can save the money too.

There are two issues here. The first is practical: the only people who know about “Save the Money” are the people who are already reading Groupon’s blogs and participating in it’s forum(s). The advertisements themselves don’t include any information. And in fact, had Groupon even decided to air a black title card with information on “Save the Money” with a link to the Tibet Fund, then we might not be having any of this conversation. But instead, the company courted disaster by creating a small group of “in-the-know” people who the advertisement wasn’t created for. The people with no, or only passing, familiarity, with Groupon had no context for the charity aspect of these commercials.

The second is a bit more academic. Andrew Mason has said that this was supposed to be a poke at Groupon’s origins, a fun parody and a satiric take on the celebrity PSA. The issue is in how satire – and even parody – work. Both work when a situation is turned on it’s head, allowing the viewer to see the foolish nature of the person, or position, being targeted (whether it is their own views or, say, Glenn Beck’s). This is why The Daily Show excels at just what they do – they’ve mastered the art of changing perception, and highlighting just how foolish their target (often Fox and personalities) are being.

The problem with Groupon’s target here is that few people think that outrage over the situation in Tibet is wrong or foolish. The concept is a bit more viable in the other two Groupon advertisements aired last night (save the whales by whale-watching and save the rainforest by getting a Brazilian wax) only because those two situations don’t involve the actual torture, imprisonment, and death of a cultural group. So instead, the focus of “who is foolish” flips back on Groupon – people don’t feel that opposing the Chinese occupation of Tibet is foolish, or that their support (financial or otherwise) is foolish. Therefore, Groupon becomes foolish (and tone-deaf, insensitive, and more) for their advertisement. (Note: it taints Timothy Hutton pretty badly, too.)

The takeaway here is pretty simple. It’s really hard to make genocide funny. It’s pretty much going to be impossible to use genocide – be it Nazis, Tibet, or Darfur – to positively reflect your brand or to sell anything. The exception here is if you manage to come up with the musical heir to The Producers. But unless you have the modern equivalent of Springtime for Hitler under your belt, you’d best leave genocide to the documentaries and dramas, and consider something else for your first national advertising campaign.

The Chicago Tribune has a continuous Twitter-feed of responses (still continuing) to the Tibet advertisement. Some people might argue that any publicity is good publicity, but I’m not sure I agree in this case – associating your product with an apparent callous regard for human life really doesn’t seem like a winning strategy to attract new users, or maintain the old.

Forbes gets the best headline out of the event, noting that Goupon’s 2-for-1 Super Bowl Special Offends Both China and Tibet Activists. Groupon had been trying to make inroads into China. Chinese reaction this morning suggests Groupon just did a worse-than-Google, as far as they’re concerned. So, shooting oneself in both feet? Check!