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Consumers' growing concerns about their health are not only well documented, but they're also a natural reaction to a global health crisis. But, several soft drinks and supplements companies are getting their messages wrong. Lucy Britner investigates.

Last week, the UK's Advertising Standards Authority banned a social media ad for a product linking its ingredients to a cure for COVID-19. Revival Drinks, trading as Revival Shots, used both Facebook and Instagram to advertise its product, a vitamin C-laden 'stick', along with the text: "Vitamin-C has been proven to boost immunity by many global studies … it is now being tested in the USA & China as a possible cure for COVID-19."

The ASA said the ads were in breach of advertising rules because they imply that "consuming Revival Shots could, through their vitamin C content, help to cure COVID-19". Under the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) code, claims that state or imply a food could prevent, treat or cure human disease are prohibited for foods; this includes food supplements and drinks. The ads also featured the 'staysafe' hashtag, which is commonly associated with the pandemic.

Revival isn't alone - two weeks prior, UK-based Chuckling Goat, which makes gut health-boosting kefir, saw its outdoor ads banned for linking its products to boosting immune systems in the face of a virus. According to the BBC, the ASA said it had "fast-tracked" the case as part of its focus on "prioritising and tackling ads that exploit health-related anxieties during the crisis".

The ASA has also opened a 'quick reporting form' for consumers to report potentially misleading, harmful or irresponsible ads related to the coronavirus.

In the US, meanwhile, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) continues to issue scores of warning letters to firms for "selling fraudulent products with claims to prevent, treat, mitigate, diagnose or cure coronavirus". Zurvita, a multi-level-marketing (MLM) company selling wellness drinks and supplements, received one such letter. Not only did the FDA point out misleading claims, but also that the structure of an MLM "may create incentives for its participants to make certain representations to current or prospective participants".

FDA spokesperson Nathan Arnold tells just-drinks that the administration is "actively monitoring the online ecosystem for fraudulent products peddled by bad actors seeking to profit from this global pandemic". 

He says: "The FDA continues to see products that fraudulently claim to mitigate, prevent, treat, diagnose or cure COVID-19, which place the public health at risk. We are continuing our efforts to protect the health and safety of American consumers during this pandemic, and encourage anyone aware of suspected fraudulent products for COVID-19 to report them to the FDA."

As with many other consumer trends, interest in health & wellness, including the race for immunity-focused functional soft drinks, has been accelerated by the global health crisis. In the last few weeks, we've seen several launches in the immunity space, including Talking Rain's "immunity-boosting" Talking Rain Essentials range in the US and multi-vitamin "immunity boost" CBD drink Calm in the UK.

This will continue. According to Euromonitor, while stockpiling behaviours are temporary, the industry must prepare for long-term changes in routine. These changes, the insights company says, will likely involve more at-home daily beverage occasions and more focus on immune support ingredients, among other things.

If brands are going to survive and thrive, then, they're going to have to do their homework.

In the UK, British Soft Drinks Association director general Gavin Partington tells just-drinks what brands need to be aware of when it comes to health messages: "The use of nutrition and health claims are controlled by European regulation," he says. "This states that no food or drink item should be attributed with the claim that it can prevent, treat or cure disease. However, it is permitted to make certain health claims for ingredients in products such as vitamins and minerals.

"Furthermore, any health claims that are used must be listed in the EU register of claims and each claim has specific conditions of use that must be met. These are also listed in the register."

At the ASA, while claims around boosting or strengthening immunity may be off-limits, immunity claims are not prohibited completely. There is an authorised claim: "[Substance] contributes to the normal function of the immune system", which can be made in relation to a number of different substances such as vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin B12, selenium or iron, for example. And, there are a lot of products that will contain sufficient quantities of those substances that the claim could be used in advertising.

The actual rules around advertising, marketing and brand claims haven't changed because of the coronavirus, but the pandemic has provided a specific context. That context is being exploited by some, but could also provide a boost for genuine players - as long as the message is right.


Expert Analysis

Key Trends in Non-Alcoholic Beverages: Powerful changes shaping the soft drinks, hot drinks, enhanced water and packaging segment

Key Trends in Non-Alcoholic Beverages: Powerful changes shaping the soft drinks, hot drinks, enhanced water and packaging segment

Key Trends in Non-Alcoholic Beverages: Powerful changes shaping the soft drinks, hot drinks, enhanced water and packaging segment...

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