The Anatomy of Deception: a deconstruction

Hi folks,

I recently came across this advertisement from a naturopath and found it to be an excellent example of the use of  a variety of advertising techniques based upon targeting what psychologists have identified as people’s susceptibility to persuasion.

To be fair and not target one specific individual I have anonymised it, and to
be honest it could be an advertisment for any new age alternative therapist, but as it contains so many examples of these techniques in a single advertisement I thought it worthy of exploration here.

So lets take a look in detail and simply deconstruct this advertisement:

  1. Prominent use of the words “natural” and “science.” This is designed to establish a link between the belief-based practices advertised as scientific, and natural. This exploits peoples assumptions that natural products are good and somehow associated with health, morality and being trusted (naturalistic fallacy). Also, this represents an attempt to establish a notion of postmodern pluralism in that the practitioner is open-minded, trustworthy and accepts both scientific and alternative worldly explanations as valued non-binary viewpoints. Additionally, this also cleverly implies that scientific medicine is somehow focused on non-natural and single-minded practices.
  2. Identification of qualification from a reputable university. Identifying that the practitioner completed a degree in a subject from a good university establishes an appeal to authority, with a genuine academic credential, but followed by:
  3. Conflation of a quackademic qualification from a non-university accredited private college with an authentic academic qualification (see #2). Again, exhibiting an appeal to authority in that the secondary qualification is presented as more advanced than the earlier one. In this case, the award is through a Canadian College but actually accreditation is through a US-based private self-interest group. A bit like an Academy of Wizards conferring a Wizardry qualification after several years of study. Sounds impressive, but in reality is not an independently validated  academic qualification.
  4. Prominent use of the word “interdisciplinary” or “multidisciplinary.”This establishes two things. Firstly, that the practitioner is a team player, and that they work with other health professionals. This seeks to impress professional authentication, but carefully avoids stating which disciplines the practitioner is associated with. In this case new-age disciplines involved here are Therapeutic Touch, Nutrition (n.b. nutritionists not dieticians) and Bowen therapy. I had to look that last one up – but it’s another manipulative therapy supposed to have more generalized health effects (sheesh, Peter Parker, where do all these guys come from)!
  5. A list of generalised and vague health issues cited as key areas of impact. This is a key feature of alternative health practitioners advertising. Being careful to avoid stated efficacy over any specific medical condition is important not to fall foul of advertising and competitive business standards/laws. However, by stating a wide range of (usually) complex chronic conditions that are not well controlled with contemporary medical treatments they have staked a territory where they can make money selling unproven and non-science based therapies. Basically, this is stating they have a cure for non-wellness.
  6. Out of house lab testing implies they use modern scientific practices. Again an appeal to science by faith-based practitioners. In reality many official lab testing services will not accept tests ordered by naturopaths, so many resort to in house testing in which they have very little expertise. Often, they will emphasise this by standing in front of a microscope or other diagnostic equipment in promotional material (also see #13).
  7. Use of a  list of alternative therapeutic practices presenting them all as equally valid therapeutic options.There is often conflation of scientific therapeutics with magical ones, and E.g. vitamins (science based nutrition) and homeopathy (faith based magic). These are usually a list of therapies that are not available from scientific medical practitioners or health services as they are not evidence-based, and have no demonstrable efficacy. Hence, their practice by alternative purveyors. Where scientific evidence is used (e.g. the importance of good nutrition and vitamins) it is usually accentuated with a completely unevidenced implementation; e.g. IV megadose vitamins, or the notion of homeopathic vaccination (actually a contradiction in terms).
  8. A recognition of status by a claim to provide education, at vaguely described educational institutions. Again, an appeal to authority.
  9. Another appeal to authority and status through the use of accolades and awards. Usually these awards will be from the practitioner’s own discipline, and therefore once again of questionable value. If you receive an award for promoting magic, does it make the magic real?  For the public these convey the air of respectability and status.
  10. Prominent use of the word “collaboration” implying as in #4 that the practitioner is a team player, and that they work with other health professionals. Also, this serves to imply that science-based medical health professionals are somehow not collaborative.
  11. Conflating alternative professional awards with another from a respected institution. In this case the award is implied by the use of the term “recognized.” This represents another appeal to authority in the practitioners presentation of their recognized status as a health professional.
  12. Collaboration emphasised once again, but this time in terms of “medical collaboration” firmly linking the notion that this practitioner works alongside physicians on an equal footing. I.e that the practitioner is a medical practitioner. Also, promoting social inclusivity.
  13. Prominent use of a stethoscope in the promotional picture. This is a frequently used method to establish scientific authenticity. Expertise in the use of this diagnostic tool is widespread (our nurses are taught how to auscultate in their first term). Nevertheless, it has a powerful symbolic significance, and once again is used here to imply technical expertise.

Overall the advertisement is very cleverly designed to imply that the practitioner is a science-based professional with authentic qualifications and experience comparable to a qualified physician or nurse. They are not, but this sort of thing has even managed to convince some academic institutions to include non-science based therapeutics in integrative medicine programs (sadly on the increase). If these folks simply advertised themselves as magical or faith-based practitioners I would have no problem, but implying they are science-based is simply disingenuous, and deceptive (either that or they have no real understanding of what science is).

In reality, this is a modern version of the snake oil salesman, and the this is a new-age practitioner selling unproven and magical therapies as a business. They may or may not believe in them themselves and that is for the reader to judge, but if you want an insider’s view on the education and practice of naturopaths take a look at Britt Marie Hermes blog on the subject. So, now you know what to look for!