I think Superbowl Sunday is the best. You get to hang out with friends, eat and drink things that are really bad for you and focus on one of the things that really defines America as a country.

No, not the football. The commercials! Duh. They’re the next best thing to the Puppy Bowl this time of year!

I’ve got a background in marketing and communication and so ads are always fascinating to me. In many ways, advertising is both art and science and a well thought out commercial is a thing of beauty.

On the flip side of that, as a skeptic, it’s always interesting to take a commercial and break it down into its constituent parts to see what’s actually being said. The carefully scripted language of commercials so often masks the truth or implies things about a product without making actual claims. It’s a daily game that we all play as consumers trying to discern accurate product information from the fluff and sneaky distractions that are ads.

Last week, I saw a commercial that qualified so well on the sneaky scale that I had to share it.

Check it out:

For those of you who can’t watch the video, I’ll summarize.

There’s this dude. We’ll call him… Bill. Bill is silver-haired and blue-eyed and clearly trustworthy. And, he’s sort of a skeptic. He explains:

My wife takes Centrum Silver. I’ve been on the fence about it.

That’s a great attitude, Bill! I, too, haven’t seen any studies that suggest that multivitamins do much good one way or the other.

There’s a great breakdown of the multivitamin question on Science-Based Medicine and you might want to let your wife know about it, Bill, because, for women, taking a multivitamin can actually do harm. Specifically, a higher intake of vitamin A can cause birth defects and increase the risk hip fractures in postmenopausal women. So good for you and your skepticism!

But wait! Like any good skeptic, Bill has new evidence to examine. He continues:

Then I read an article about a study that looked at the long-term health benefits of taking multivitamins.

Awesome! Bill, I can tell you and I are going to be great friends. New information is always good and science is constantly changing. It’ll be great to hear about the study and what it found. What did you learn, Bill? Please, tell me! FOR SCIENCE!

They used Centrum Silver for the study.

EVEN BETTER, Bill! So if the study found that there were long-term health benefits, you’re already ahead of the game because you’re taking the brand actually used in the study! What else?

Sooo… I guess my wife was right.

Um. What? Bill? Bill, I have follow up questions. Bill, come back!

Announcer Dude: Centrum. Always your Most Complete

Always my most complete WHAT? Bill! – what is this guy talking about? I don’t understand. I thought you were a skeptic! I thought you were studying evidence. I mean, it’s interesting that they used Centrum but what did they find?

Of course, we don’t know that. But after watching, I bet a lot of people will associate long-term health benefits with Centrum. And assume that the study found a link.

So, let’s get to the fine print of the commercial to dig in a bit more. Here’s the small text that appears at the bottom while Bill is twinkling his eyes at us and pretending to be a skeptic.

centrumad_fineprint

A prior formulation of Centrum Silver was used in a long-term study evaluating the health benefits for men 50 and over.

That’s not a whole lot to go on. But, googling “long term benefits of centrum silver in men over 50″ led me to the actual Centrum site itself where we hear that there’s BIG NEWS!

centrumsite

BIG NEWS: Centrum Silver6 was part of the recently published landmark study evaluating the long-term benefits of multivitamins! (Learn More)

Why yes, I would like to learn more, helpful website! The Learn More link took me to a page that basically said the same thing that Bill did.

We are proud to announce that Centrum® Silver® Adults6 was part of the recently published Physicians Health Study II. This landmark study evaluated the long-term health benefits of taking multivitamins for men age 50 and older. And because of its quality, Centrum was the multivitamin used in the study!

Was this the “article” you read, Bill? I don’t even know you anymore. No wonder your wife is leaving you. What? Er… Nothing. No, no she didn’t say anything to me. Well, not much.. Look, I don’t want to get in the middle of this. Can we just focus on the multivitamins and discuss your failing marriage later?

I’m tired of hearing from Centrum. Let’s go see what actual research was done. The one useful piece of information that the website gave me was the name of the study. To the Googles!

The Physicians Health Study 2 ran from 1997 to 2011. It’s purpose was to test Vitamin E, Vitamin C and Multivitamins to see if they helped prevent cardiovascular disease, cancer, age-related eye disease, and cognitive decline.

Oooh, cool! Bill, this study was looking into whether a multivitamin can stave off some pretty nasty illnesses. Let’s see what they found.

The vitamin C and vitamin E components, which ended as planned in 2007, found that these vitamin supplements do not prevent major cardiovascular events, cancer, or eye disease.

Bummer. But, whatever. We weren’t really worried about the Vitamin C and E results anyway. Stupid individual vitamins are nothing compared to the Centrum multivitamin!

What did they find out about it?

Among this population of US male physicians, taking a daily multivitamin did not reduce major cardiovascular events, MI, stroke, and CVD mortality after more than a decade of treatment and follow-up.

Sigh.

Bill, I’m beginning to think you aren’t a skeptic at all. Dammit, Bill – the multivitamin did no better than placebo to prevent cardiovascular events.

I hate to say it but it appears that Bill was misleading us. The commercial is really pretty ballsy in it’s deception. At no point, of course, does Bill say anything that is actually untrue. But he walks you down a path and points to a conclusion that isn’t really there.

It also looks like this isn’t the first time Centrum has done this. In my googling, I found this article on an almost identical commercial that ran back in November of last year and did exactly the same thing except it wasn’t Bill and his wife, it was another dude (Phil? Craig? I’d name him but it still just hurts too much…) and his doctor.

And so, the conclusion appears to be that the ad game is really more of a battle between consumers and advertisers. And the advertisers are going to be as clever and sneaky as they can to try to get you to believe what they want. So be careful. TRUST NO ONE. TURN YOUR BACK ON HOPE AND LOVE.

Ahem. Sorry. I got a little carried away there. I just thought Bill and I had something special.

But then, this happened. I was finishing up this post and reading through some of the documentation on the studies and I noticed that the Physicians Health Study 2 actually broke the results down into two categories and published two separate articles in JAMA. One, which we discussed above, looked at cardiovascular health. The second looked at cancer prevention.

I assumed that the cancer prevention study had similar results and that there would be no benefit found for multivitamins. But I looked at the article just to be sure.

In this large prevention trial of male physicians, daily multivitamin supplementation modestly but significantly reduced the risk of total cancer.

So yeah, no big surprise the… WHAAAAAA? The study actually did show a reduction in the risk of cancer? Bill! What the hell is wrong with you? Talk about burying the lede. So, yes, it appears that in spite of the fact that they could be shouting to the mountaintops that Centrum helps prevent cancer, they chose to instead publicize that Centrum was in a study.

Maybe these guys aren’t that clever after all… Or maybe they haven’t caught on yet. The American Academy of Family Physicians still has a recommendation from back in 2007 saying that there are no recommendations for or against multivitamins. Maybe they haven’t caught up yet either. Or maybe there’s other research that conflicts with the cancer/Centrum study.

At the end of the day, your best bet is probably to talk to your personal doctor and figure out if there are any specific vitamin deficiencies that you need to use supplements for. It seems like a better idea to get your health advice from a medical professional rather than a face on TV that you’ve created an unreasonable persona and backstory for.

All images courtesy ISpot TV.

Masala Skeptic

Masala Skeptic

Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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20 Comments

  1. Avatar of tonysidaway
    February 4, 2013 at 3:43 pm —

    Thanks for this. I’ve seen the same TV ad many times on a live MSNBC link I use on the internet, and my response was identical. Well, actually, no. After the mind-numbing realization that this ad is treating me like an easily impressed person with no reasoning skills, I didn’t go on to do the follow-up research. You did, and I really enjoyed reading about that. Again, thank you.

  2. Avatar of pciszek
    February 4, 2013 at 4:40 pm —

    Question: I get that vitamin supplements are no match for eating a variety of vegetables and whatnot. But if one does not eat vegetables and is never going start doing so, is taking vitamin supplements better than not taking them?

    • Avatar of Smashley
      February 4, 2013 at 4:46 pm —

      It’s my understanding that the reason the multivitamins don’t do anything is that our bodies don’t process them the way they do the vitamins we consume in food. You’ll just have expensive pee, I reckon.

      Hilarious and well-researched post, Maria!

      • Avatar of pciszek
        February 4, 2013 at 6:05 pm —

        My doctor has prescribed vitamin D, 2000 IU daily as opposed to a RDA of 600 IU. She did not specify a particular formulation, so I buy the non-oil tablets because they don’t stink. Am I doing this wrong?

      • Avatar of James K
        February 5, 2013 at 12:22 am —

        My understanding was that it was exceedingly unlikely that most people would be vitamin deficient, so taking vitamins was pointless since extra vitamins don’t do you any good.

        • Avatar of pciszek
          February 5, 2013 at 12:22 pm —

          In order for what you say to be true, eating “healthy” would have to be completely unimportant–because so many people don’t. The son of an aquaintence has been desperately trying to learn to eat something besides chicken fingers and tater tots so that he can start taking girls out on dates. The day he managed to eat four buttered noodles without barfing was a major victory.

          • Avatar of Masala Skeptic
            February 5, 2013 at 12:35 pm

            I think vitamin deficiencies vary in different people. My doctor has me on B12 supplements. I don’t think anyone is saying that all supplements don’t work or that all people don’t have deficiencies. I think the issue is that multivitamins are so broad as to not really be useful or necessary. The best course is to get your individual needs checked and supplement what your body is needing.

          • Avatar of victoriadashtwenty
            February 6, 2013 at 6:52 pm

            Healthy eating is completely unimportant to vitamin deficiency. There’s lots of people that eat really poorly. There isn’t a lot of people that have go blind or have scurvy from poor eating. Crap food is full of vitamins.

            If you have a vitamin deficiency, it’s almost certainly because you aren’t absorbing those vitamins due to a medical problem. If your diet isn’t giving you enough vitamins, you’re either in a cult that grows it’s own food or you’re an 18th century pirate stowed away on the USS Eldridge.

          • Avatar of Jack99
            February 6, 2013 at 11:22 pm

            @Maria, I think you are right that “The best course is to get your individual needs checked and supplement what your body is needing.” I think multivitamins are are bit of a hangover from the old days when we did not have readily available measurements for most vitamins, so a shotgun type of approach was used.
            Maybe in this context it is worth noting that not all vitamins are readily measured even today – B3 and several of the B’s are in that category. Let’s see, we can do A, B1, B6, C, D, E, B12, folate routinely. Of course, as always, follow advice from your doctor..
            (In brackets – what is it with the US obsession with self treatment? When I was over there there were all these ads on TV recommending all sorts of drugs for this and that – stuff I would have thought you would only use if prescribed by a GP. Compared to Australia, I think it was a bit over the top. Can anybody else confirm that this is a real thing? Or was it just my impression?)

          • Avatar of notfromvenus
            February 10, 2013 at 12:16 am

            Re: Jack – you’re totally right. You can’t take those drugs without prescription from a doctor in the US either, the ads are to try to get you to go bother your doctor into giving you the prescription. And it’s all very annoying. Drug companies didn’t used to be able to advertise on TV, but now you see it constantly.

          • Avatar of Jack99
            February 10, 2013 at 1:58 am

            notfromvenus-thanks for that info. I guess we will see the same thing here in the colonies before long!

  3. Avatar of Jeremy Redlien
    February 4, 2013 at 7:55 pm —

    I think my favorite quote from a centrum silver ad was that it was the multi-vitamin most selected to be studied. I think it even included like some specific info on how often centrum silver has been used in studies (like total numbers or the actual percentage of academic studies it was used in).

    Not a single bit of info on what any of these studies said though. Just that centrum silver is studied, a lot.

  4. Avatar of deedub
    February 4, 2013 at 9:45 pm —

    Reminds me of this XKCD comic:

    http://xkcd.com/1096/

  5. Avatar of gregladen
    February 5, 2013 at 10:49 am —

    Excellent job capturing the fine print, that’s hard to do! I think there is a subliminal message sent out on commercials that says “ignore the next 1/4 second!” then they show the little white letters that say “everything we are saying in this commercial is certified bullshit.”

    I hope you do something on Vitamin D. My Dr. says everyone he sees has a Vitamin D deficiency. I suppose it is possible that his Vitamin D measuring machine needs calibration. But could it be true?

    • Avatar of pciszek
      February 5, 2013 at 12:17 pm —

      I hope you do something on Vitamin D. My Dr. says everyone he sees has a Vitamin D deficiency. I suppose it is possible that his Vitamin D measuring machine needs calibration. But could it be true?

      Well, my endocrinologist had me get my liver scanned and put me on 50,000 IU of vitamin D a week after something in one of the blood tests freaked her out. Later she reduced that to the daily 2000 IU I take now.

      Supposedly northern Europeans developed pale skin as an adaptation to the combination of farming, which deprived them of dietary sources of vitamin D, and wearing clothes most of the time, which severely limited their ability to make vitamin D using sunlight. So I can believe that computer geeks who live on Doritos and never see the sun could be vitamin D deficient as well.

      • Avatar of gregladen
        February 5, 2013 at 8:16 pm —

        I try to wear as little clothing as possible for that reason but in Minnesota that still means Mormon Underwear, will lined pants, a wool shirt, two sweaters, a giant furry hat and mickey mouse boots. And gloves. And goggles. But the goggles are just for the fashion statement.

        • Avatar of SteveT
          February 5, 2013 at 10:10 pm —

          A nudist here in Minnesota is someone who doesn’t put on a sweater over their turtleneck. There are days when my wife does that, and it’s hard to keep my hands to myself since she’s practically NAKED! ;)

    • Avatar of Jack99
      February 6, 2013 at 4:20 pm —

      @Gregladen, Our lab specialises in Vitamin D testing. Deficiency is indeed common, oft quoted as 30% of the population in Australia.
      Calibration is not the issue as each assay is calibrated individually and quality control samples run. This is a mandatory requirement for accreditation, otherwise a fee cannot be charged. There are differences in results due to different methodology, but these are accounted for by each lab having its own reference range.

  6. Avatar of Jack99
    February 6, 2013 at 4:22 pm —

    Moderation, Maria? What is contentious about that comment?

  7. Avatar of tracylords
    February 6, 2013 at 10:49 pm —

    So what you are saying is, we have barely gone past “I am not a Doctor, but I play one on TV”? Good to know. Just curious, you say you have a background in Marketing and Communication, did you ever have to design any advertising that was like this? Dubious at best.

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