Aesthetics investigates reports of unethical marketing tactics in the specialty and whether practitioners believe the hard sell is commonplace
In October this year, the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) launched online safety information for patients considering cosmetic interventions that according to the association’s vice president, Mr Stephen Cannon, will help protect patients from, “Aggressive marketing and ruthless sales tactics of some unscrupulous companies.”1 But just how common are ‘aggressive’ and ‘ruthless’ marketing methods in the aesthetics industry? And can ethical standards in marketing and advertising be maintained?
In the UK, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP)2 creates the advertising code of practice that is enforced and regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which has the ability to ban advertisements that fall short of the guidelines.3 According to the ASA, more than 3,000 ads relating to cosmetic and aesthetic surgical and non-surgical interventions received complaints in the last five years, with just over 400 resulting in a ban.4
However, health communications and marketing specialist Tingy Simoes says, “The ASA has very openly admitted that they can’t police everything – they can only do what they can when someone brings a complaint and look into it.” Rulings and advertisements banned by the ASA this year include one advert published in February in The Metro for labia reshaping that stated that patients could ‘achieve a more natural appearance’ and ‘relieve the discomfort caused by enlarged labia’. The reason given for the ban was that it encouraged women to be dissatisfied with their bodies.5
Aesthetic practitioner, Dr Harry Singh, who regularly presents talks on aesthetic marketing, acknowledges that there are lots of practitioners who aim to promote themselves and their clinics ethically, but he also believes that many are unaware of the effect their marketing has on the patient. “I don’t think people do it on purpose – I think many are not educated enough in terms of regulation and guidelines,” he says, adding, “It’s all about education.”
In 2013, the Keogh Review highlighted the role of advertising and marketing information in regards to cosmetic medical providers.6 Mr Cannon agrees with Keogh’s views, saying important points raised in the review, “Highlighted how some unscrupulous providers make financial offers, time-limited deals and use celebrity endorsements to encourage people to sign up for procedures without properly informing them of the risks.” He believes that this type of marketing is inappropriate and irresponsible because it, “Trivialises the risks of procedures and preys on people’s vulnerabilities, misleading them into believing they may be able to achieve unrealistic outcomes.”
"I also think a lot of marketing that goes on is unethical because it targets vulnerable people," Tingy Simoes
Simoes says that she believes that marketing in this way is fairly common in both the surgical and non-surgical industry, explaining, “By ‘not appropriate’, we mean incentives like time-linked deals, or buy one get one free – where you are being, in a way, pressured to have more procedures than you originally came in for. I also think a lot of marketing that goes on is unethical because it targets vulnerable people, such as young people and people going through difficult life changes such as divorce, adding to their insecurities.” Aesthetic nurse prescriber Frances Turner Traill agrees that some marketing tactics are ‘aggressive’ and ‘ruthless’ and says that marketing can be especially problematic on social media, where medical treatments are often ‘beautified’. She says, “I see it more on social media than anywhere else – it’s beautified through marketing – there are a lot of stock photos used where they have absolutely perfect lips which are not realistic, real transformations.” She adds, “The way treatments like botulinum toxin and fillers are sometimes advertised is similar to a facial or waxing, and there is no mention of the complications, no mention of cooling-off periods or the risks that can occur.”
Many practitioners agree that change is necessary when it comes to marketing and advertising in aesthetics. Turner Traill says, “I think people need to be made aware that aesthetic medicine is not beauty and that should be underlined in any marketing.” She emphasises that, “Practitioners need to educate patients and make them aware of the risks associated with the treatments.”
Simoes says that the lead up to Christmas and the New Year often prompts people to market limited seasonal time offers. She believes practitioners need to, “Stay away from anything that is related to time-linked offers. A medical procedure is not something that should ever be time-linked because it’s a very personal choice and it deserves consideration,” she says. Turner Traill suggests that providing disclaimers on marketing materials, such as before and after images, may help maintain an ethical standard that abides by the guidelines, “On advertising, I think it’s important to use language such as, ‘terms and conditions applied’, ‘subject to a medical consultation’ and ‘results vary from person to person’,” she says.
Dr Singh welcomes the RCS’s new safety information and thinks initiatives such as this can help to protect patients, “It’s definitely a good idea. Patients are unaware of a number of factors such as who can legally do the treatment, complications, expected results and safety.” Dr Singh adds that points such as these are not often disclosed in marketing, but should be. Turner Traill says marketing and advertising that does not offer these disclosures, and downgrades a medical treatment to appear as a simple beauty treatment is, “Just selling – there is no marketing to it, it’s just hard sell.” She adds, “There is often no respect to the actual treatment and what it incurs. Practitioners should 100% be responsible for their patients and should adhere to their codes of practices.”