Posts Tagged 'quack medicine'

Sugar pill cynicism

A Punch cartoon about homeopathy which, like homeopathic medicine, simply makes no sense at all

Just a quick Friday afternoon update to say the Talk Normal massive is in favour of the 10:23 campaign: a bunch of protestors is going to take a massive overdose of homeopathic remedies tomorrow. It’s in protest at the spread of these sugar pills to parts of the world where they can have a genuinely damaging effect on health, but also at the decision of pharmacists like Boots to market them.

There’s no point in me going over the arguments again why something that is diluted so much that it doesn’t have a single molecule of the active ingredient in it might not work beyond the placebo effect. That has been covered excellently elsewhere, and if you can’t believe that homeopathy is silly you’re unlikely to be convinced by me; or, furthermore, to worry because I think you’re an idiot.

Boots makes a different argument: if the pills don’t actively harm people, and customers like to buy them, why shouldn’t Boots sell them?

Because, I say, Boots has a privileged position in the UK which allows it to make surplus profits as long as it acts ethically. To explain: when I was researching Scoring Points, my book about what Tesco did with its Clubcard data, I heard how Tesco discovered that its young female customers often stopped buying products from the pharmacy aisle for no obvious reason. Tesco did some more research, and discovered that they were going to Boots instead. What suddenly sent them to Boots? They were pregnant, and more concerned about their health. Even though Boots was, on average, 20 per cent more expensive, they valued it as one of the few retailers that they trusted to do more than just sell them stuff.

Which is why it’s ethically not good enough for Boots to admit to a parliamentary committee that there is no evidence that homeopathic remedies are effective, but continue to profit from them (“I have no evidence to suggest they are efficacious. It’s about consumer choice and a large number of our customers think they work,” is the quote). It’s an example of how customer service is mutating from “we’re here to help because sound advice is more important than short term financial gain for you and us” (the reason why the mums-to-be swapped from Tesco to Boots, or what banks used to do) to “If you’re paying, then we’ll give it to you”.

In the first case, the sort of brand trust that Boots enjoys has a meaning, and can conceivably justify charing higher prices than a supermarket. In the second, the Boots brand is just a label to help separate you from your disposable income.

Boots certainly isn’t the only company that’s going down this path, and maybe commercial homeopathy is small beer in the the face of the Great Branding Cynicism of the early years of the 21st century. When it comes to cynical marketing, it’s not as if Big Pharma’s got clean hands, is it?

Homeopaths seem, in my experience of them, to be pleasant people who believe in what they are doing. Good for them. Boots, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to believe in homeopathy as anything more than a source of revenue from gullible people – and for that it deserves any bad publicity it receives.

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