New York News Radio – The voice of bad science

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Photo by Ousa Chea on Unsplash

I wrote the original article some years back, and I still think it is quite relevant.

The same issues that make New York City news radio a cesspool for bad science still exists.

While not science-related, a few days ago, on the night before 9/11, there was an advertisement on 1010WIN by Online Trading Academy that featured 1010WIN announcer Larry Mullins, who made jokes about serial killers.

Plus c’est la même chose.

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The September 21, 2006 indictment of the maker of dietary supplements that claim to improve everything from sexuality to memory, was yet another indictment in the long-running battle between federal authorities, the charlatans that produce these unregulated products, and the poorly informed public that purchases billions of dollars of such products.

The federal indictment names Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals, its owner and president, Steven Warshak, and five other individuals, including Warshak’s mother, on charges that include conspiracy, money laundering, and mail, wire and bank fraud. Federal authorities accuse them of luring customers with free-trial offers and money-back guarantees, then billing their credit cards without authorization. They are accused of defrauding thousands of customers and banks of at least $100 million according to federal authorities.

The underlying question is, how can tens of millions of people purchase such worthless supplements? The answer is primarily that Americans are woefully uneducated in the rudiments of basic science. This ignorance makes these types of consumers prey to supplement companies. The fact that tens of millions of American’s believe in government conspiracies, Bigfoot, and Roswell are dubious signs. Lawrence Krauss writes in Stop the Flying Saucer, I Want to Get Off that “mountains of statistics suggest that the public is far more susceptible to scientific nonsense than political nonsense. More than half of Americans are unaware that the earth orbits the sun and takes a year to do it”.

Everyone from university presidents to members of Congress to the National Science Foundation all agree on one thing: the ignorance of the basic sciences amongst American citizens is perilous; both in the short and long term. When you consider these facts and then combine it with radio advertising that attempts to manipulate this lacking, it is a sure-fire way for manipulation.

Print and media advertising rates in the last decade has dropped considerably. Be it the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, CNN or the airwaves of the radio; even small mom and pop companies are finding that advertising in such media can have a profoundly positive impact on their bottom line.

Does Radio = Bad Science

In the New York City area, one of the most popular news radio stations is WCBS 880AM With a listening base of over two million listeners, WCBS can offer surprisingly reasonably affordable advertising rates. This is a boon to local advertisers who want to reach the masses, yet are constrained by their limited advertising budgets. The combination of inexpensive advertising and a broad listening audience is a compelling value proposition.

What is worrisome is that for some radio stations, their requirement to accept advertising is often not more than the ability to pay. For consumers, this makes radio a veritable boiler room for many products and services that are often ineffective. According to WCBS-AM, “the station will take most things for advertising; as long as they do not hurt the integrity and credibility of the station.”

What all of these companies are accomplishing in their radio advertisement is that they are preying upon the desperation of people who are trying to lose weight, stop smoking, stop cancer, or change whatever malady that affects them.

It is not called a boom box for nothing

When one reads, they are in control of the speed of their reading. However, with radio, the only item the listener can control is the volume, as there is no way a listener can control the speed of the announcer. With that, it is easy for advertisers to hurriedly throw out impressive-sounding pablum, without giving the listener the time to understand and digest what they are hearing.

These advertising claims are made hurriedly with a language that is often filled with abstract, vague, and utterly meaningless pseudo-scientific terms. When these advertisements are for products with dubious creditability, consumers will often take these advertisements at face value, without analyzing the claims deeper.

Much of the bogus advertising is for areas that consumers are willing to traditionally spend a considerable amount of money: health care, weight loss, and sex products. These areas are chosen since government regulation is woefully inadequate. Of course, if the ever-growing population of obese people would stop buying supplement after supplement, and denying they have a problem, and instead take a pragmatic approach such as discovering Overeaters Anonymous, they might perhaps lose all of their unwanted fat.

However, until consumers starting taking responsibility for their problems, as opposed to popping supplement after supplement, the proprietors of these shenanigans will continue to use radio to promote their wares. With that, radio advertisers love to use meaningless scientific terms that sound impressive to a person without a background in science. Some of which are:

  • Published in a prestigious medical journal
  • Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial
  • Doctor recommended
  • 100% natural

Let us now take a look at several such advertisements.

International Star Registry

Starting with perhaps the least egregious of the bogus advertisers, the International Star Registry advertises heavily during the holiday season. They have what they call The Perfect Gift for Any Occasion; the ability to name a star. For $54.00, a buyer can get a detailed star chart with their star circled on it. However, besides that and a certificate for framing, that is it, as the star’s new name is not used by astronomers or anyone outside International Star Registry. The $48.00 is for an unframed certificate and sky chart. For $97.00, the certificate is framed, and for $139.00, both are framed.

As reported in Wired Magazine Buy a Star, But It’s Not Yours, Robert Naeye, editor of Mercury Magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, puts it in no uncertain terms: “The star names sold by the International Star Registry are not recognized by any professional astronomical organization.” In fact, there has never been any confirmation a stars name that has been registered by the International Star Registry has even been used by anyone outside of the International Star Registry.

The problem is that most people believe that the naming of a star is an official activity. While there is no evidence that the International Star Registry is actively trying to mislead (on a few test calls to the 800 number at the International Star Registry, each operator clearly stated that the item is a novelty and not official).

However, to those who would like to honor a living or departed loved one with an astronomical gift, Marc Taylor of the Andrus Planetarium in Westchester County, New York, offers an alternative. “If you want to buy something for a child, why not get them a beginner’s astronomy book or even a pair of binoculars?” he said. “In memory of someone who has died, donating astronomy equipment — even a magazine subscription — to a school is a great way to keep their memory alive, because you open up the universe to others.”

For the average consumer, when they hear the term International Star Registry, images of academic astronomers or Steven Hawking likely come to mind. The reality is simply this: the International Star Registry is a for-profit organization that sells expensive novelty items.

Healthcare Products

Snake oil has been the bane of consumers for quite a long time. While the Food and Drug Administration regulates some of the healthcare markets, the reality is that the FDA is understaffed, and there are large areas where its regulation does not extend.

There is a common misbelief that the long arms of the FDA are looking out for the average citizen. However, the reality is that the FDA is utterly understaffed and under-budgeted. While much of the industry needs to be regulated and have some oversight, the regulation of the dietary supplement is so lax that it can almost be considered unregulated.

For the consumer, whenever they hear the following mandated FDA disclaimer, they should immediately be suspicious: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. After such a disclaimer, an able person should ask himself or herself, if the product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, why use it?

Focus Factor

WCBS has long advertised many products from Vital Basics, Inc. of Portland, Maine. One that has gotten much advertising is Focus Factor. At the beginning of the radio ad, the announcer tells us that his name is Dr. Kyl Smith, and he has spent his professional life studying brain function. Such an introduction sounds rather impressive. When one visits the company’s web site, it turns out that Dr. Smith is not a medical doctor, as one would assume; instead, he is a Chiropractor. While many medical doctors hold chiropractors in disdain as to whether chiropractic is a fraud or not, at the very least, a chiropractor is in no way inherently qualified to pronounce judgment on neurological function.

Indeed, many doctors on radio advertisements are chiropractors. So why not simply be upfront and state, “this is Dr. Kyl Smith, a practicing chiropractor.” The answer is that the public as a whole feel that chiropractors lack credibility. They are not viewed as medical doctors and many view chiropractics as nothing more than an offshoot of normative medicine.

The problem with Focus Factor, like many similar drugs, is that claims are made that sound impressive, but are utterly meaningless.

As an example, let us take a closer look at the overview of Focus Factor:

Finally! A safe, easy and natural way to improve focus, memory, mood, concentration and energy. Focus Factor is a superior natural supplement that enhances brain function. The nutrients selected for this unique formula are absorbable, biologically active, and the ingredients were chosen for their ability to feed and nourish the brain. These nutrients are combined with natural antioxidants and plant extracts that protect and support neurotransmitters (natural chemicals in the brain that support normal mood, memory, and concentration). Focus Factor is now available with a 30-day money back guarantee.

What the advertiser does here and in many such advertisements, is to make numerous statements, often with great words, that when interpreted, mean very little.

Let take apart each section.

Advertising claim

Reality

to improve focus, memory, mood, concentration and energy.

Compelling claims, but they never say how it is done; not on the ad, nor on the web site.

The expression superior natural supplement

has no real value. Superior to what?

enhances brain function

Nearly everything with some nutritional value enhances brain function to a degree. If a person is ravenous and consumes a can of dog food, the brain function will be enhanced after the consumption of the dog food.

The nutrients selected for this unique formula are absorbable, biologically active, and the ingredients were chosen for their ability to feed and nourish the brain.

Nearly any drug or supplement formula is unique. One would hope consumed items are absorbable, if not, straight to the toilet it goes. Finally, it is biologically impossible to direct feed and nourish the brain.

protect and support neurotransmitters

A compelling claim that lacks any scientific proof.

30-day money back guarantee

It is a basic premise of marketing that once you get a product in a consumer’s hand, they are often reticent to return it. For most people, they do not feel it is worth it to return it.

There is a lot of question that anyone should ask about Focus Factor and other similar drugs. Some of which are:

  • Since chiropractors are not trained to do brain research, where would a chiropractor perform brain research?
  • Chiropractors are trained to treat diseases and conditions with spinal manipulation. How did such training lead Dr. Smith into brain research?
  • Has the product ever been reviewed in a scholarly, preferably peer-reviewed journal? Has the creator ever published their results?
  • Was the research based on blind, preferable double-blind studies?
  • Is there any proof of the effectiveness of the products other than claimed benefits and personal testimonials?
  • If the product is so effective, why haven’t the major drug companies been selling their versions of this supplement?

Also, Focus Factor, like many other supplements, attempt to gain legitimacy via quasi-scientific documents. Focus Factor cannot even do that. The web site has a link for Clinical Endorsements, yet the only endorsement is by Dr. Smith. While the site has a link for Clinical Endorsements, it has absolutely no clinical research information available.

Finally, with all of the beautiful things the web site has to say about him, a Google search was unable to find any significant information about Dr. Smith credentials. A search on ‘Kyl Smith’ resulted in but 29 results, and over half of those results were about Smith’s petition with the Food and Drug Administration asking the agency to approve health claims for use on labels and in the labeling of dietary supplements that contain phosphatidylserine.

Publish or Perish

Many researchers live by the credo of publish or perish. To remain in high academic standing, they must consistently have many articles in peer-reviewed journals. However, most researchers for companies mentioned in this article are quite reticent to share any information about their academic standings.

Questions about qualifications, publications are replied to in a cautious, evasive manner, and straightforward answers are almost impossible to obtain. The reality is that most of the advertisers who quote published studies are referring to studies in their own journals that are not subject to the strict, rigorous review processes that authentic peer-reviewed articles are.

The Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals indictment similar shows a related issue. In one example, the indictment cited ads placed in male-oriented magazines that claimed that their Enzyte product was developed after years of study by two doctors, one at Harvard and the other at Stanford.

According to U.S. Attorney Greg Lockhart, “the company president and others made up information in their advertisements, such as endorsements by doctors that did not exist, and results of customer satisfaction surveys that had never been conducted.”

Avacor

While Focus Factor was about what went on in your head, Avacor is advertised about what is on your head, hair, or the lack of it. There are thousands of supposed cures who baldness; unfortunately, none of them have been shown to work.

Avacor is a set of product for scalp hair growth. Steps 1 and 2 are a topical application of shampoo and solution, while step 3 is a supplement capsule that is injected.

While the web site attempts to be scientific, most consumers do not read the fine print that the owners write the only quasi-scientific article listed of the company and that the company sponsored its own findings.

One of the main misleading statements from the Avacor web site is that “The ingredients in AVACOR hair re-growing formula have been extensively tested by medical doctors at the Hair and Skin treatment center and New York hair laboratories in New York City. Other studies have been performed at leading universities and clinics in both the USA and Europe, on the active ingredients in Avacor.”

One would think that the research has been performed on Avacor directly, but the reality is that the research was on the active ingredients in Avacor; while the studies themselves had nothing to do with Avacor.

Dr. Mitch Gordon was the spokesman for Avacor until early 2003. He appeared in many T.V. and radio ads for the product. When asked how he got involved with the company, Dr. Gordon stated, “I am a friend of Tony, the owner of the company. I just happen to be the most articulate one, so they chose me for the ads, even though I have nothing to do with the product”.

Advertiser vs. Advertiser

All of the radio advertisers want to protect their turf. International Star Registry brought suit in 1999 against another star-naming company, claiming trademark infringement.

In the hair loss field, a company called Hair Genesis makes a product with similar characteristics of Avacor. However, Hair Genesis attempts to differentiate themselves.

Dieting — When deception is the only answer

The ultimate of all snake oils are diet products. The fantastic thing about the diet industry is that even with the fact that nearly everyone who starts a diet fails, the multi-billion dollar diet industry keeps growing year after year. As Americans continue to get plumper, the diet industry will accordingly grow by leaps and bounds.

The reason that diet supplements are such perpetual best-sellers is that losing weight is takes significant self-control. Most overweight people last such self-control and discipline and are therefore on the constant lookout for chocolate and diet supplements. When combined with such a lack of control and self-discipline, the obese community makes for a perfect target for advertisers of products with dubious merit.

The number of diet supplements advertising on New York news radio is never-ending; the claims remain the same, only the brands change. One diet potion that was heavily advertised on WCBS was the Stacker made by NVE Pharmaceuticals.

Their call their product Stacker “The Worlds Strongest Fat Burner.” Notice their nebulous claim about the product: “Stacker 2 may well be the most powerful energizer available to date, without a prescription. Stacker 2 has the potential to help you experience more productive workouts by increasing both endurance and mental focus. Stacker 2 may easily assist you in changing your body composition by helping to create an increased metabolic response while suppressing the most ravenous appetite.”

Notice proceeding each claim is the expressions of may well be, has the potential and may easily assist. Such proviso terminology is analogous to the statement that “Grandma has the potential to be the next Joe Montana and may easily help the New York Jets will another Super Bowl.”

Many diet supplements have testimonials, but these testimonials are utterly deceiving. Many times pregnant women are used. While they do not state they are pregnant, they indeed did lose much weight, from their ninth month to 3 months later. It all comes down to the fact that diet commercials are intrinsically deceptive. Why? Because they have to be: there is no cure for dieting, and the only way to make the point is via deception.

The bottom line: Never underestimate how low some marketers will go to sell you that magic pill. Just remember, the only real magic is diet, exercise, and a healthy dose of skepticism.

Sex Aides

Given the profit potential, the New York radio stations have been advertising sexual aide products. The stations have advertised a plethora of pills and solutions that are guaranteed to enhance the buyer’s sex life. The products are similar to others advertised in that they make grand claims, and often fail to deliver. These products also come with the generic 30-day guarantee.

From a marketing perspective, a 30-day guarantee is a perfect way to show good faith with minimal risk. Unless they are extremely dissatisfied with their products, many consumers will not take the initiative to return the product. While this is true for most products, it is most manifest in the area of sexual products.

If a person decides to return Avacor for failure to grow more hair, there is no shame in that. However, if they are trying to return a sex potion for failure to perform, there is an inherent admission that they also did not perform. With that, a senior marketing director at one of the advertisers (who prefers to remain nameless) stated that they have an extraordinary low return rate on their sexual supplements. No one would want to admit that they are a failure, and a return of such a product would be a direct admission of failure. With that, most men would instead take a $100.00 loss, then get a credit and admit their masculinity was deficient.

If a placebo were sold as a real supplement, there would be minimal risk in such a tactic. When asked directly to the senior marketing director at one of the advertisers who sell sex supplements if they have ever sold a complete placebo, he preferred not to answer.

There Are Many More Examples

These are but a sampling of the many radio advertisements that are fraught with misleading, deceptive, ambiguous, and confusing statements. For every company listed in this article, there are ten ready to take their place.

The modus operandi of many of these supplement companies is to market one product for a few months, and then use the same marketing ploy for yet another product. Be it Hoodia or whatever the scam of the month is. Hoodia supplement companies are yet another example of where firms are raking in astronomical sales as demand for Hoodia weight loss pills skyrocket.

For as long as the consumers will listen to the radio, the stations will be more than happy to fill their advertising coffers.

Barnum was right

It all comes down to the fact that talk is indeed cheap. Be it in real life, or via radio advertisement. The result is that PT Barnum was right, and there is a fool born every minute. Having a Ph.D. in biology and statistics should not be a requirement for listening to AM radio. With all of the bad science in the airwaves, consumers need to be warned of the dangers and skeptical of the smooth-talking miscreants.

Whether they are listening to New York or Miami news radio, the airwaves are filled with bogus claims of con men. Ponzi died long away but lives on in different variations of his con game. Listeners need to take caveat emptor to heart in many of their purchases, as the buyer alone is responsible for assessing the quality of a purchase before buying. Listeners cannot rely on the understaffed FDA, or the radio station in collusion with the advertisers to ensure that the products are worthy.

While the FDA has their disclaimers, if the FCC had theirs, it would likely be:

New York news radio stations are not intended to provide real information, nor help you in any way. Your ad dollars are appreciated all the time. We mislead you, and you have no recourse.

I work in information security at Tapad. Write book reviews for the RSA blog, & a Founding member of the Cloud Security Alliance and Cybersecurity Canon.

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