Those paying attention will know that I am an avid reader of the Advertising Standards Authority adjudications. In the United Kingdom adverts must comply to a set of standards and those that do not, and are complained about, will face the mild wrath of the ASA. Every Wednesday the ASA publish on their website the results of their investigations into whatever possibly non-complaint ads have swum into their purview.
Advertising compliance focuses primarily on three particular areas: offense, misleadingness, and harm, and because of the last two, woo advertising falls fowl of the codes over and over again. The ASA takes an evidence-based approach - if a claim is made in an advert and there is reason to question that claim, then in pursuing an investigation the ASA will require evidence that those claims are genuine. Needless to say, for much of woo, no such evidence is forthcoming. This is just as true with "the world's favourite cheese pasty" style claims as it does for books the ownership of which may cure you of your brain tumour. The point is, if someone is putting that claim into the advert, then the claim ought to be based on something other than the whims of the advertiser.
Much as I enjoy reading through individual adjudications, despite the fact that more often that not all that happens is that the ASA rule an advert that has already finished its run must not be run again, there are certain important aspects of the marketing of woo that only really come to light by comparing similar cases.
The most obvious one, to me at least, is the paths by which such things are advertised. The more laughable the claims being touted the more likely the ads have appeared on either race- or faith-based broadcasting channels. The reason for this seems clear; in the United Kingdom racial communities are more often than not faith-based communities too. The Afro-Carribean community in London, for instance, has a very loud and very active Christian centre. Asian communities will tend towards Hindu or Muslim, simply because there is a greater overlap between race and faith than there is when compared to more secular caucasians.
Consciously or not, those peddeling their woo realise that it is a waste of energy trying to sell their magic beans to people who already demonstrate a lack of gullibility. So the thinking goes that if they are open to religion, open to miracles and wonder and prayer-answering deities, then they will have no trouble stomaching the notions that crystals can shield you from evil forces, or that someone can cure your heart-condition over a premium-rate phoneline. Advertisers pursue faith channels, which is a no-brainer, and race channels because they know that they will get a higher sucker yield for their buck than other, more inclusive, broadcasters.
For some reason, though, I feel that such behaviour is less of a transgression than the sight that met me while visiting Brixton yesterday. Laid out, ironically enough alongside a small choir singing Jesus's praises, were a set of tressle tables with an all too familiar offer of free stress tests and copies of the gate-way tech manual Dianetics.
Brixton, for those who do not know, is one of the most Afro-Carribean areas of London - added to the number of small churches that pepper it and the surrounding area, it has the reputation (not entirely earned) of being a rough part of town. Google provides 327,000 hits for Brixton Murder, and 620,000 for Brixton Drugs. This mix of race, religion and trouble, it seems, turns the area into something of a honeypot for the Church of Scientology.
Things noticed about the operation on Saturday. The Scientologists selected for the operation all seemed to be under thirty. Some, the ones selected to hand out the notorious "2 out of 3 people suffer from stress" leaflet (also, it seems, non-compliant), were just children. Naturally it was ixnay on the ientologysay, apart from the copyright notices in the small print, so perhaps people don't think enough to notice, but there is something worrying that CoS can't pull in any old Scientologists to sell their stuff. This, you would expect, would be the way to go - if someone has been involved in Scientology for years, then they'll have more experience, more knowledge, of the effects of the tech, but it is not these that are sent out but the young and occasionally the beautiful. CoS, comparatively, sends out provisionally-licensed drivers to sell cars One can suspect the reasons - old Scientologists are in short supply because people don't stay in. They can't turn to old Scientologists to sell their dangerous nonsense because they've either gone or crossed the street to stand with the critics and Anonymous.