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.
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.
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!
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.
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.