January 31st. Tax deadline. It’s also the day the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) starts going after Botox ads on social media in the UK. It will be pulling down posts that can be taken to be referring to the drug, even indirectly. (A pseudonym it mentions which I hadn’t heard is “Beautox”.)
It’s an audacious move: the UK’s non-surgical cosmetic industry is estimated to be worth £2.75bn, and 40% of 13 to 19 year olds say social media images cause them to worry about body image. The ASA wants to be a digital regulator, and as part of this strategy it bought a licence for social media monitoring software to help it identify offenders at scale on social media. It’s the sort of thing commercial companies use to track brand reputation, but it’s adapting it to look for marketing ads and posts that breach its rules.
What does this mean for you? Apart from that you should stop commissioning social media campaigns that refer to Botox products and services, not a great deal. There will be no fines. In theory persistent offenders could face referral to the GDC and Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). Actually this looks like an opportunity to let your followers and readers know how much you support what the regulators are trying to do, toothless as they are.
In your content, highlight the difference between a dodgy high street or home visit beautician doing Botox and fillers, and a professionally trained dentist administering injections in a sterile environment that’s been certified by the CQC. This stuff never gets old because the facial aesthetics boom is still booming. The most effective messaging for this treatment modality — as with dentistry — is the classic FUD strategy: play on the fear, uncertainty and doubt that is already out there.
It remains to be seen how effective the ASA’s monitoring software will be at detecting more nuanced ads that don’t use targeted keywords. It will be trawling Facebook and Instagram, the mother of all platforms for facial aesthetics marketing, and where most complaints come from, which Facebook owns. Facebook has agreed to pull offending posts.
Facial aesthetics has been normalised over the past five years but it’s worth reminding potential patients that the proposition of someone they don’t know injecting poison and filler into their face and lips is actually quite extraordinary. It’s not like getting a haircut. But it is safe provided they find a trustworthy clinician in a sterile environment.
A source at the ASA tells me they drafted these FAQs after a flood of similar enquiries into its free phone service. To be fair, these are much clearer than the vague and jargon heavy guidelines. The agency was mauled on Radio 4’s You and Yours for not doing enough to appease campaigners who want stricter regulations on facial aesthetics, and the fact remains that there are loopholes in the guidelines.
Here is the official enforcement notice. It says: “POMs [prescription only medicines] such as Botox cannot be advertised to the public. You should focus on aspects of your service which do not relate directly to the provision of a POM. You could: Promote the service you provide and the consultation itself. Claims such as ‘a consultation for the treatment of lines and wrinkles’ may be acceptable – but if using this approach you must be careful not to directly or indirectly advertise the POM.”
So it would appear that “anti-wrinkle consultation” is OK to advertise as is “anti-wrinkle treatments” as long as you’re referring to more than one treatment. Does this mean you need to change your website? My source says: “Our enforcement is specifically about social media because there’s less ambiguity.” This is what the FAQs say: “Can I refer to Botox on my website? Yes, in very narrow circumstances. The key principles are that you need to make very clear that you are advertising the ‘consultation’ rather than Botox, it shouldn’t be easy for a potential client to stumble upon information about a ‘prescription-only medicine’ and any references should be incidental, balanced and factual.”