Today Tonight: product promotion dressed as health news

Today TonightLast Friday on the Seven Network’s Today Tonight (TT), an episode on arthritis featured respected GP Dr Robert Menz, who gave a very solid interview – warning about the over-use of opioid medications, and promoting exercise and weight loss.

Dr Menz, speaking on behalf of the RACGP, would have known the TT episode’s byline – Are doctors over-prescribing pain killers for arthritis? – quite reasonably concluding the topic was worth comment. I am also a spokesperson for the RACGP (disclaimer: not at this very moment!) and also happily add my GP voice to various health issues.

However, what the good doctor didn’t know was that the whole episode was a thinly disguised advertorial for the products of two multinational companies, IBSA Biochimique and Bioceuticals (Blackmores).

In fact, virtually the entire footage besides Dr Menz’s interview was cut-and-pasted from two previous TT episodes promoting the exact same two arthritis pills.

Dr Menz’s footage was substituted for the sections in the previous episode, where marketer Andrew Mowbray was given air time to offer his opinion as to how good his product was, and TT journalist Annelise Nielsen helpfully noted the company had just received TGA marketing approval. Talk about lucky timing – the very same month in which arthritis was recognised as an issue worthy of the TT audience.

This week’s TT webpage handily promotes both products beneath their video, under “story details’. The detail only runs to four sentences: the first establishes credibility by naming the RACGP, then the other three move in for the money shot, plugging commercial links to facilitate product purchase. No links to arthritis or exercise information*.

[*Two-word memo to TT marketers: footwear companies.]

Today Tonight 2

The two previous TT advertorials – sorry, journalistic reports – were from March 2015 (about a breakthrough, natural arthritis remedy from Bioceuticals) and September 2015. The third episode (last week’s) was simply a combination of the first two, plus Dr Menz.

All three episodes featured lovely older ladies recounting their miraculous escape from stormy arthritic seas, with lingering close up shots of the pill packets upon which they sailed. Any old shark cartilage might have done the trick, but these particular sharks selected by Biochimique and sprinkled with Bioceuticals turmeric, were evidently the only ones that passed the rigours of TT scientific testing.

The byline of the September episode was: The pill giving sufferers relief. Odd, because what Dr Menz was actually talking about with non-drug options was: The relief given to pill sufferers. TT just took his cautions about one class of pill and interwove them with the journalist’s sales pitch for their preferred yellow capsules.

Today Tonight 3

Also worrying, from an integrity point of view, is that all three episodes featured rheumatology specialists as spokespeople for Arthritis Australia. Unlike Dr Menz, whose comments were entirely separate from the context of pushing wonder pills, one of the rheumatologists suggests that the plugged product is superior to its market competitors.

Given the weak nature of evidence that these pill classes are any better than placebo in the first place, endorsing a specific product is at risk of being considered dubious, particularly in the context of the unashamedly promotional nature of the TT episodes.

When the next TT invite arrives at Arthritis Australia’s door, that hopefully-independent peak body might consider the safer response, ‘no-one available’.

Why do I bother with all this detail about just three TT episodes floating about in the tide of undeclared advertorials on prime time?

Well, I was brought up on Stuart Littlemore’s wonderfully understated Media Watch. Like Stuart, and his successor Paul Barry, any doctor concerned with how the broader public receives health information, needs occasionally to at least raise an eyebrow.

Stuart Littlemore

About Dr Justin Coleman

Justin is a GP working in Aboriginal health in Brisbane, Australia. He is also a medical writer, editor and blogger. Further details at https://drjustincoleman.com/
This entry was posted in Naked Doctor and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Today Tonight: product promotion dressed as health news

  1. Pingback: Today Tonight: product promotion dressed as health news | drjustincoleman | Dr Thinus' musings

  2. Reblogged this on partridgegp and commented:
    Today Tonight Tomorrow’s Trash.

    Our daily newspapers (and some medical papers/journals) are a collection of bad news and rubbish collated to sell advertising space. Today Tonight follows in this modern ‘journalistic’ tradition.

    I suggest the following free therapy, for all arthritis sufferers, and the general public:

    – turn off your TV (calories consumed in front of the TV seem to lead to greater weight gain, sitting is statistically bad for you)
    – go for a walk (exercise is good for you, can lead to weight loss, less weight through joints improves arthritis symptoms, increased levels of fitness improve arthritis symptoms)
    – repeat thrice daily (who needs willpower when you have habit?)

    Enjoy this advice in good health!

  3. jfbuckley1 says:

    You’ve probably been funnier Justin but rarely more important. Have you sent copies to TT and their bosses, media watch, RACGP, Arthritis Foundation, television standards and complaints people and a sprinkling of politicians  (and, for irony, how about Four Corners!)?

    John

  4. Todd Cameron says:

    Justin once again you have nailed the issue. Take the advice of Nick Tellis above. Move more, eat less and put down that pill packet. Maintain a healthy weight. The best way to avoid joint replacement treatment.
    The standards to which TT have slipped are embarrassing and it meets no definition of news being more than a bubble thought Twitter feed. What passes for journalistic research ought to embarrass them and the likes of Jana Wendt and Mike Willesee would be horrified

  5. Robert Menz says:

    Hi Justin
    I had no idea about the rest of the TT story, and appreciate the feedback. TT contacted RACGP on the back of an article mentioned in an ABC press release last week, quoting a study suggesting an increase in opiate prescribing by GPs in moderate to severe arthritis. I’m not sure how they conned Susanna Proudman, but I suspect some selective quoting.
    kind regards
    Robert
    http://www.biomedcentral.com/1756-0500/8/536/abstract

    • Great to hear your input, thanks Robert. It confirms that you agreed to participate based on a very reasonable premise, and also that you were contacted via the RACGP, which is entirely disconnected with any supplements manufacturer. Susanna Proudman’s quotes were rehashed from footage used back in March and she was presumably contacted via Arthritis Australia. I am unfamiliar with whether AA might have any affiliations with either manufacturer in question, but they were probably also just asked to provide a spokesperson for an arthritis story. I will contact both RACGP and AA to suggest they treat future TT requests with caution.

  6. Graham Archer says:

    What silly people you show yourselves to be. Your juvenile conspiracy theories are truly absurd. Dr Colman do you seriously think we would retain our license if we did what we are accused of by your media jihardists? And what would be the point? Do you seriously think there are brown paper bags full of money being passed around. Funny, it is was that lucrative we’d do just 3 stories of that kind, out the 800 we’ve produced so far this year. Grow up, you sound like a school boy!
    Dr Coleman did you consult anyone before posting your dishonest, patronizing rubbish. No, you just made it up. You just listened to the chatterers at the publicly sponsored ABC and echoed their left wing prejudice towards organizations that actually pay their bills. If you were a true researcher or even a proper doctor you’d check the facts, go to the source, ask some intelligent questions, but no, you just made it all up.
    You probably won’t want to read the truth because it is not that convenient but maybe someone will. Making TV 5 nights a week 52 weeks of the year is not easy. We have limited resources because we just exist in Adelaide. It’s a privilege to be able to make a local show in an ever centralizing world. We take that privilege seriously. We don’t always have as much material as we would like but the space we have to fill each night doesn’t change. On that Friday we were three and half minutes short of a show. That’s like running out of blood half way through a transfusion. We can’t just ignore it.
    We found and contacted Dr Menz who had some interesting things to say about GP’s tending to over prescribe pain killers for arthritis suffers rather than explore exercise, weight loss and alternative remedies. Dr Coleman perhaps you haven’t been the recipient of the largess of “big pharma” but many of you colleagues have, if you want to talk about back handers. Our audience is interested in their health and Friday nights are skewed to an older demographic, who aren’t out at some bar. Anyway, Dr Menz gave us an hour of his time and we reported his comments accurately. We added in a couple of examples from the most recent file stories we had and that made up three and a half minutes. Yes, the examples were TGA approved but somehow that’s now part of our evil conspiracy. And yes, we rang the “patients” and they were happy to re-appear. Perhaps they were on the payroll too? As for Dr Proudman from Arthritis Australia, she happened to be in one of the file stories so we included a comment from her. No one was conned. No money changed hands, it was three minute of TV.
    And here’s Dr Coleman’s solution. He advises Arthritis Australia to impose a “fatwah” of silence on the infidels. Now that is an enlightened approach to dealing with things that don’t fit the culturally proscribed views of our medical elite. So much for informing the public.
    If you looked at our program, and I don’t believe you really ever have, afterall you live in Queensland, you’d see we actually take on many serious subjects and have had enormous success influencing public policy and changing laws in SA, and actually helping ordinary people. One of our journo’s has just been nominated for a Walkley Award. You can view our work at todaytonightadelaide.com.au. Sure, sometimes time constrains mean we need to give the short version, and we expect criticism, but prefer it to be informed. Dr Coleman at the end of each day we put our work up for public comment, I am sure that is not what happens in your cosy little office.
    Graham Archer
    Producer
    Today Tonight Adelaide

    • Breathtaking

      Clearly you get a lot of criticism in your job if your response to this article is so….. energetic. Maybe have a look at why that is.

      More importantly, your response is filled with so many culturally inappropriate comments that I think maybe you should look in to that. Would seem to be an important thing to review given your position in the media.

      • Graham Archer says:

        Normally I am very relaxed about a bit of criticism, it goes with the territory. But citizen journalists should understand that they just can’t publish whatever they want without adhering to the notions of fairness and accuracy, they demand of the media. If you were branded corrupt without being consulted, you’d be a bit annoyed. And spare me the cultural nazism.

    • I can see that Justin’s column has been very triggering for you Graham. I have no doubt that your job is very difficult and I cannot begin to imagine the pressures involved with making a nightly current affairs program. Of course, having the integrity of one’s work being challenged would be very upsetting. I didn’t watch the segment and I am therefore unable to comment on the content or the post’s criticism of it. So this is merely a comment about the subsequent interaction from an observer. In my experience, the least effective way of getting one’s point across is by lashing out with emotionally charged and personal remarks. If you are complaining about a lack of fairness and accuracy, it is a lot more powerful when your response is delivered with the utmost fairness and accuracy, in a measured and respectful manner. Keep the moral high ground. Express your opinion, by all means, but please consider trying to do so in a professional and therefore more effective, manner. With all due respect.

  7. Gosh, Graham, you don’t hold back!
    I tend to avoid allowing rants to be posted on this blog, but given you are the TT producer it’s reasonable to give you the right of reply.
    I could respond to any number of the accusations you raise, and the manner in which you raise them, but it’s probably simpler to just allow that I’ve had my say and now you’ve had yours.
    Thanks for unreservedly clarifying your position.
    Cheers
    Justin

  8. Irwin Lim says:

    Justin, I understand your concerns about how the piece ended up promoting supplements.

    I would however, disagree with the “no-one available” approach to comment. Arthritis & rheumatology suffers from so much misinformation & lack of awareness in the community that any media opportunity needs to be taken.

    Of course, we want a balance and factual representation. And, yes, sometimes, there are problems with the story leading to misinterpretation or more questions. But at least it starts a conversation about diseases which are otherwise largely misunderstood and poorly/inappropriately treated.

  9. good article. Health professionals need to be very wary when dealing with the media, as any comments can be used in any way they see fit – context is lost very quickly.

    This will happen with “mainstream” media too – just look to Sue Dunlevy for examples when she writes about pharmacy.

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