Misleading Ads in Scientific American

I’m frequently asked, “Is what that ad says really true?” Three recent inquiries have been about products advertised in Scientific American. An ad may acquire a certain cachet by appearing in a prestigious science magazine, but that doesn’t mean much. Scientific American’s editorial standards apparently don’t extend to its advertising department. I remain skeptical about the claims for all three of these: Juvenon, the StressEraser, and the ROM exercise machine. I discussed the ROM machine last week.


This product is advertised as “The Supplement That Can Slow Down the Clock on Aging Cells.” Andrew Weil also sells this on his website. It supposedly helps keep your mitochondria from decaying, promotes brain cell function, sustains energy levels, and is a powerful antioxidant.

The first time I noticed an ad for Juvenon in Scientific American I wrote the following letter to the editor:

I was delighted to read in Michael Shermer’s column that acupuncture was “full of holes.” Then I turned back the page and found an ad for Juvenon on the reverse. This is tantamount to finding an ad for the (creationist) Discovery Institute on the back of a page about evolution.

My only consolation is that most readers of Scientific American are observant enough to read the words at the bottom of the ad: “The product featured is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” I hope they are also astute enough to realize that the words “pre-clinical studies on aging” do not constitute a basis for human treatment. Juvenon’s claims (“sustains energy level, promotes brain cell function”) are based on in vitro studies and animal studies in aged rats.

Much of alternative medicine follows this recipe: take a lab study, hypothesize a human application, and sell something. As Michael Shermer so aptly puts it, “science is the only tool that can tell us whether they really work or not.”

They didn’t publish my letter.

In October 2007, the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database commented on Juvenon in its newsletter.

[Juvenon] is now being promoted for healthy aging, improving brain cell function, sustaining energy levels, and preventing cellular aging. Its main ingredients include alpha-lipoic acid and acetyl-L-carnitine. These ingredients have antioxidant effects, are involved with energy production in cells, and might have a role in improving cognitive function in older people and patients with dementia. The next step will be to see if science can prove positive outcomes for the aging process, energy, or overall health.

Yes, the next step is to find out if it works. The next step is not to start recommending everybody take the stuff.

In the pharmaceutical industry, out of 5000 initially promising drugs, only 5 make it to human testing, and only one of those makes it to the market. What are the odds that this particular “preclinically” promising remedy could pass that kind of testing? Presumably 1 in 5000. But Juvenon is not likely to be subjected to that kind of testing, since it is marketed as a diet supplement rather than as a drug. Under FDA rules, the manufacturer cannot claim it is intended to treat any disease; only vague “supports health” claims are allowed. They can’t come right out and say it will make you live longer, although they try very hard to imply it. They can’t even show that it makes rats live longer, and the company’s own scientific advisor admitted to me that the only human evidence they have to support their claims so far is anecdotal.

StressEraser: “Effects of Stress Reversed”

The StressEraser is a small handheld device that monitors your pulse and guides you in slow breathing exercises to produce relaxation. If you use it for 15 minutes at bedtime, they claim that your system will continue to reverse the effects of stress while you sleep. You will “feel good again” – guaranteed!

As far as I can see, this mini-biofeedback machine is nothing more than a $300 “crutch” to facilitate slow breathing exercises. They claim it reverses “ergotropic tuning.” That sounds impressive, but I think it’s just a way of saying that stress tends to heighten the body’s responses to stress. Relaxing is good. I don’t doubt that this cute little gadget can help people relax while they’re using it. It remains to be seen whether it has any significant long-term effects on response to stress or on the diseases caused by stress.

There’s a similar device called the Resperate that has been approved for treatment of hypertension and has been shown in small, short-term studies to cause a small drop in blood pressure. If it can be confirmed that breathing exercises do some good, the next question is whether they do any more good than other relaxation techniques.

Shame on Scientific American

I’ve written to a number of newspapers and magazines protesting about ads that I thought made false or misleading claims for health products. They never print letters to the editor about their advertisers and they never answer my letters to the advertising department. I’ve even written directly to the publishers to no avail. It seems the journalistic standards of the newspaper or magazine are entirely disconnected from the need to make money from advertisers.

A couple of years ago I had a long exchange with my local newspaper about a bogus weight loss product – one of those “eat all you want and still lose weight” scams. I showed them that the claims were false. I showed them that the FTC had asked for the cooperation of the media in eliminating these ads, because there were too many of them for the FTC to keep up with. An FTC official had even published a list of specific things the media should look for, and this product fit the bill; I not only told them what was on the list but I gave them the link to that list. I got excuses like “We don’t decide what ads to run, they come to us from our parent company.” They refused to take any responsibility to screen ads as the FTC had asked.

I pointed out that I had now informed them of the FTC guidelines and the bogus nature of this product, and could document that they were aware of these facts. I told them if a reader believed their ads, was harmed, and sued, he could name the newspaper in the lawsuit and the newspaper would be liable for having knowingly printed false and misleading information. They didn’t care. They continued to run the ads. They’re still running similar ads for the same company, although the product names have changed.

I don’t expect much of newspapers, but it seems to me that a magazine devoted to science should have some standards, especially a prestigious publication like Scientific American. It’s unfortunate, because when an ad appears in a scientific magazine, the average reader is likely to think the product is scientifically valid and has been approved by the magazine. They can brag, “As advertised in Scientific American” and consumers will be impressed.

I wonder if Scientific American would run an ad for Sylvia Browne’s psychic services or an ad for a perpetual motion machine. Would they run an ad saying, “We will rid your home of ghosts”? I don’t remember seeing anything like that in their pages. Is there a double standard at work here? Shouldn’t they be even more vigilant about products that impact patients’ health than they are about products that only impact their wallets? Lots of publications reject cigarette ads.

If some trusting soul buys an ROM 4 minute exercise machine, believes the hype, follows the instructions, and has a heart attack from overexertion or blows out the ligaments in his knee, whoever published the ad should share in the blame. Sure, caveat emptor, but how about responsible journalism giving the emptor a little help? Is that too much to ask?

Posted in: Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Science and the Media

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14 thoughts on “Misleading Ads in Scientific American

  1. Harriet – thanks for the excellent article. There is more than a bit of irony in this piece, however. We runs Google ads on this site, and they routinely are for quackery. We added the disclaimer to make sure there wasn’t even an implicit endorsement of any of the products advertised. Also, the process of placing Google ads is different than selling ads in a magazine, and I think most blog readers understand that.

    However, we still plan to get rid of the Google ads. We are in the process of partnering with a journal to place more science-friendly ads on the site. That journal is Scientific American.

    I know the editors of SA and they are not only scientific in their outlook, they are overtly skeptical (as the presence of Michael Shermer’s column in SA reflects). I suspect this is something imposed by the parent company – one of the realities of publishing.

    However, I will invite SA editor-in-chief John Rennie to respond to this entry.

  2. Nyx says:

    I have personally fielded questions from friends and family on the order of: “If it’s in the Scientific American, it must be ok, right?” This is exactly what the advertisers are counting on. And it does not hurt them to be able to say: “As advertised in the Scientific American!”

    Now I answer: “Just don’t believe the advertising – ever. And I have given up my long-standing subscription to SA.”

    Shame on Scientific American, indeed!

  3. scotth says:

    Harriet, excellent article and I share your outrage. This is the primary reasons I am not subscribed to SciAm right now.

    I hope John Rennie is willing to respond. I would be very interested in what he has to say.

  4. Fifi says:

    One would hope that the majority of people who read SA are capable of discerning the difference between an ad and an article (and when one is trying to be another) – and between science and pseudoscience (though I would guess that some of the post-human, neo-futurist and techno hippy crowd may pick it up once in a while and they’re not always clear on the fiction part of science fiction).

    That said, the ad does in many ways gain credibility and the superficial gloss of being “science” by being included in SA. The magazine provides a context which, by association, implies that the advertised product is “science”. The bigger question here is, ultimately, how being supported by quackery will (now or in the future) influence the editorial aspects of the magazine. What’s being created is a bit of an unproductive loop – subscribers don’t renew because they disapprove of the ads, the mag has to run more of the ads to make up for lost revenue due to lower sales, more readers leave so more poor ads are accepted to stay afloat and so on. All print publications are facing multiple challenges from rising publication costs (paper, transport and distribution) to falling hardcopy readership (more people read online but less buy the mag). Magazines – apart from ones funded by governments or universities – are businesses, even when they’re selling stories about science. The way that editors and publishers try to keep editorial and advertising separate is that editorial doesn’t get involved in ads (apart from talking about special issues with the ad dept.) and the ad department gets on with the business of selling ads without consulting with editorial – it would get rather strange and inappropriate for the ad department to be asking the editorial team to clear who ads can be sold to or to check in with editorial before an ad is sold. There could be a blanket policy regarding pseudoscientific ads but it means there’d need to be an expert in the ad dept. to judge what is or isn’t pseudoscience (and who wasn’t part of the editorial team). I’d be interested to hear from SA what their take on it is and what their policy is.

  5. RoderickBeck says:

    I am not impressed by the blog itself or the comments. I am a Juvenon user. Juvenon is a non-profit company owned by Berkeley University. It’s founder is not a charlatan, but the rather well known and highly respected biochemist, Bruce Ames (as in the Ames mutagenicity test). He uses the company as a research vehicle.

    Acetyl-carnitine and lipoic acid used in combination have generated spectacular results in lab animals.

    Do a search on medline or review the sections on the substances at the Linus Pauling Institute:

    If you’re going to pretend you are ‘science-based’, then at least review the science literature.

  6. Joe says:

    Concerning the adverts on the side of this page. For the most part, I do not notice them. When I do, I imagine that SBM is soaking the quacks that pay to display there.

  7. teeps29 says:

    After reading in a recent comment about the type of Google ads you get, I turned off my ad-blocker for this site so I could see for myself and laugh at them. Now you’ll have to excuse me, I’m off to cleanse my colon.

  8. Harriet Hall says:


    The science literature on Juvenon WAS reviewed not just by me but by the authors of the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database (arguably the best source for reliable information on diet supplements). The NMCD limited themselves to saying Juvenon “might” have a role for some conditions, and in their individual articles on acetyl carnitine and lipoic acid, they rate them each as only “possibly” effective; they don’t even rate the “probably effective” rating. For some uses, they rate alpha lipoic acid as “possibly ineffective” and for safety they rate both as only “possibly” safe.

    The Linus Pauling links you offered do indeed suggest benefits for lab animals. But the idea that it might slow aging in humans is pure speculation at this point. One of the links you yourself posted says, “Although recent studies in rats suggest acetyl-L-carnitine supplementation may be beneficial in preventing age-related declines in energy metabolism and memory, it is not known whether acetyl-L-carnitine supplementation will help prevent such age-related declines in humans.”

    We can all agree on what the science actually says. Whether to take Juvenon is a matter of whether you choose treatments on the basis of clinical evidence or on the basis of animal tests, optimistic speculation, and a willingness to take a risk on an unproven treatment.

    Suppose you learned that a prescription drug you were taking had only been tested in preclinical trials on animals, but had never been tested on humans. Suppose an expert panel reviewed all the available data on this prescription drug and concluded that it was only “possibly” effective and “possibly” safe. Would you keep taking it? I think most people would stop taking it and would be very critical of the FDA for letting it on the market without proper testing.

  9. Nomad says:

    “However, we still plan to get rid of the Google ads. We are in the process of partnering with a journal to place more science-friendly ads on the site. That journal is Scientific American.”

    If I wasn’t in a public venue right now, I would have laughed out loud.

    Yeah, the google ads have acupuncture, weight loss bogus, detoxing rubbish and, my personal favorite, – Is athiesm against the law?

    That site is so riddled with logical fallicies, I would recommend it for your show Steve, except it would be bashing ignorant christians who are not really stepping on sciences toes (although trampling all over logic’s.)

  10. nitpicking says:

    Hey, I was going to ask John Rennie to comment!

    As for the antioxidants–as Dr. Crislip pointed out on his most recent podcast, there’s a logical reason to expect antioxidants to reduce the effectiveness of immune response, because we destroy pathogens with free radicals (powerful oxidizers). Promiscuous antioxidizing might actually damage health.

    I’m an out-of-date former bio grad student. What do the doctors in residence have to say?

  11. evanbirkhead says:

    Regarding your comment about our product the StressEraser personal biofeedback device —

    As our ads say, the StressEraser is an FDA-regulated medical device that is clinically proven to counteract stress. It is based on fundamental, well-documented principles of heart rate variability, vagal tone and parasympathetic response. There is a wealth of literature on the stress-relieving benefits of biofeedback.

    I invite your readers to refer to our research page, which summarizes the published StressEraser research as well as our research in progress:

    The current research on HRV and the parasympathetic nervous system is summarized on this page:

    A description of the StressEraser science and a science video can be found here:

    Evan Birkhead
    VP, Corporate Communications

  12. Evan,

    Your site lists three published papers. One simply demonstrates that StressEraser accurately measures heart rate. The second is a small, open-label, pilot study. The conclusion of this study is only that more research is justified. The third paper is not a study at all – just a review.

    Your website links to no studies that establish the clinical claims you make. You refer to studies in progress – well, they are in progress, so cannot be used to support claims.

    I did a PubMed search and did not come up with any additional relevant papers.

    I looked through the list of published research on biofeedback you link to, and did not see any papers that appear to support your clinical claims.

    Your website appears to be an excellent example of pseudoscientific marketing – you are using an idea that has some grounding in research, but then making specific clinical claims not supported by evidence and linking to a whole bunch of research to make your claims seem valid, even when none of the research actually supports your claims.

    The “FDA-regulated” marketing is also very common – it appears that it is meant to give the impression that the FDA has approved the clinical claims, but all it means is that the device – like all medical devices – are regulated by the FDA for safety, without any review of the clinical effectiveness or accuracy of the claims made for the application of the device.

    If I have missed something then please point me to a published study that provides adequate evidence your product will reverse the effects of stress.

  13. passerby says:

    As I’m reading this, 6 months after the publication of the last comment, there is a Juvenon Google-ad on the site.

    It seems the planning to switching to an ad server from SciAm is still ongoing. Once that happy day cometh, readers will be able to click on links that take them, instead of some quack site, straight to the well respected magazine.

    Where they can see the Juvenon ads again.

    … priceless.

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