Groupon Joins the Pseudoscience Club

Last month, I wrote about the pseudoscience I found while flipping through the SkyMall catalog. Well, here’s a sequel. This morning, I opened my Groupon e-mail to find the following enticement:

Human bodies are classic hoarders, refusing to toss out their harmful toxins and other useless bric-a-brac until their spleens become trapped under avalanches of old newspapers. Unclutter your carcass with today’s Groupon to Cleansing Day Spa in downtown Brooklyn. Choose between the following options:

  • For $25, you get a 45-minute colon hydrotherapy session (a $55 value).
  • For $15, you get a 25-minute energy ion foot bath (a $30 value).

Cleansing Day Spa takes a holistic approach to wellness and beauty, aiming to improve health by reducing bodily toxins. Its ionic foot bath uses charged atoms, which act like tiny toxin-seeking magnets to neutralize and eliminate body trash, thereby reducing stress on the liver, kidney, immune system, and internal janitorial staff. Colon hydrotherapy flushes embedded waste from the colon in a safe and sanitary way to help boost gastrointestinal health and overall wellness.

The whole idea that the human body is full of “toxins” that need to be actively cleansed is utterly bogus. It’s an enticing idea–spend half an hour in a spa and undo all the nachoes and martinis and smog. But enticing doesn’t make it true. The body is self-cleaning; it’s pretty good at eliminating waste on its own.

The inimitable Ben Goldacre–Dr. Debunk himself–has more on the foot bath pseudoscience in particular. Plus, a good rule of thumb for evaluating these kinds of claims on your own: ” ‘Toxin’ is classic pseudoscience terminology.”  Amen.

P.S. What I find particularly troubling about this Groupon listing is the tone. It’s one long ad, but because it’s written from on high, by some omnipotent being/Groupon staffer, it masquerades as fact. All Groupon listings have this tone, by the way, and it’s not the first time I’ve noticed incredible/dubious claims being made in the text. I know the goal is to sell services, but does Groupon have a responsibility to make a good faith effort to get the facts right? It would be one thing if Groupon was merely running, verbatim, some text that, say, a spa had written itself. Then the website could just put quotation marks around the whole thing and run some sort of disclaimer. But does Groupon’s responsibility change when the writers it hires make these claims on their own, in their own words? I’d say yes.

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19 Responses to Groupon Joins the Pseudoscience Club

  1. Constance Reader says:

    You immediately assume that Groupon wrote that ad copy, however, I think you would find (if you had done any research whatsoever) that the business offering the groupon writes their own ad copy. Holding Groupon (or any similar service, as there are at least half a dozen) up as the party at fault for these claims is lazy and thoughtless.

    It also ignores the fact that ad copy such as this “preaches to the choir”. Such businesses as this day spa are not trying to convince customers of anything, their target demographic are those customers who already believe such things and, as any scientist who is not living under a rock would know, will ignore any facts that contradict those beliefs.

  2. Carlton Hoyt says:

    I’m with Constance on this one. Beyond it most likely not being written by anyone at Groupon, I don’t think that this ad is really trying to convince anyone of much of anything.

    …But calling something “Colon Hydrotherapy”? Really? I wouldn’t want that if they were giving it away AND my spleen was “trapped under avalanches of old newspapers”.

    Marketing fail? Sure. Deserving of the title pseudoscience? Eh.

  3. Emily Anthes says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. While I admit that I do not know, for 100% certain, that this exact listing was written by someone at Groupon, that’s usually how it works. Groupon employs many copy writers whose exact job is to write these ads. Groupon regularly posts ads online seeking to hire copywriters and there’s a public style guide and everything. It’s no secret. (And, given that the tone matches the other listings exactly, I would be very surprised if this copy were written by the spa.) For more on copywriting at Groupon, see here: http://www.mediabistro.com/webnewser/groupons-first-copywriter-says-we-were-a-scrappy-startup-just-having-fun_b6508

  4. Constance Reader says:

    Go to the spa’s website, this woo is not coming from Groupon. I was especially entertained by the ionic foot bath color chart which shows you exactly which toxins have been removed from your body through your feet by the color of the water — including heavy metals, somehow. All in a spa that also offers chiropractor services (more woo) and teeth whitening (I’m stumped on the connection to woo, maybe just a moneymaker).

    http://www.nycolonics.com/index.html

  5. I generally take the text of Groupons for my city to be a joke, like the one I got for wine making the other day:

    “To make un-fine wine, simply place grapes beneath a silk pillow, repeatedly mash your head against it, and then wring the pillowcase into a nearby mouth. …You’ll make two special visits to the winery. First, you’ll visit the grape-blood emporium to choose your wine through staff-provided info and crystal-ball consultation; once you decide on a grape, you’ll assist in crafting the brew by adding key doses of yeast and puppy kisses to the blend.”

    Or the one from earlier this week for batteries:
    “Unlike humans, who operate on a delicate balance of ginseng, vitamin D, and middle-school history textbooks, most important gadgets harness battery power. Take advantage of the universal life source with today’s Groupon: for $10, you get $25 worth of batteries and more from Interstate All Battery Center ”

    Or the one for Zipcars:
    “A rental car frees drivers from the burdens of owning, maintaining, hugging, and bristle-brushing the giraffes on their safari-drawn chariots. Roll confidently through the urban jungle with today’s Groupon: for $30, you get a one-year Zipcar membership (a $65 value).”

    I think the staff do write them (at least for the Toronto ones) as they are always in the same sarcastic and amusing tone, but I don’t think they’re meant to be taken seriously. That being said, they do also have the occasional discount for some nonsense woe service, but the wording is never any more serious than the others (at least in my city).

  6. Lindsay says:

    I agree with Emily on one point – the copy is usually written by someone at Groupon, but it’s based on the information provided for them by the business hosting the coupon. That’s why all Groupons have the same overly witty and eventually tiresome tone.

    However, I disagree with the idea that it is somehow Groupon’s responsibility to debunk the healing powers of footbaths and colon hydrotherapies. They’re a business and it’s ad copy. They’re trying to sell something – they’re selling a business that sells itself on pseudoscience. I’m not sure how Groupon decides what businesses can participate in their deals, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not based on “what are the best interests of the public?” If so, they wouldn’t be trying to sell me doughnuts and hot dogs.

    So sure, it is pseudoscience, and pseudoscience is bad, but I think we should pick our battles. I’d rather argue against pseudoscience represented as fact in a newspaper or politics, where the people spewing it have more responsibility to the public. Or as in one of Ben Goldacre’s more famous examples, when politicians in Africa are telling people with AIDS that AIDS drugs don’t work. A few suckers buying into a Groupon for foot baths is peanuts compared to that.

  7. Emily Anthes says:

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I agree with you all that this is hardly the end of the world, and if I had to pick one instance of pseudoscience to battle, sure–I probably wouldn’t pick this one. But I don’t have to pick just one pseudoscientific claim to debunk. I merely call out Groupon today because its parroting back a particular myth that I see all the time, everywhere (hello, women’s magazines), and I thought it would be a good opportunity to call attention to it. Groupon, of course, is not the originator of this myth, but it just represents one more avenue for claims like this to continue to circulate.

  8. Joe H. says:

    “It would be one thing if Groupon was merely running, verbatim, some text that, say, a spa had written itself. Then the website could just put quotation marks around the whole thing and run some sort of disclaimer. But does Groupon’s responsibility change when the writers it hires make these claims on their own, in their own words? I’d say yes.”

    I don’t really have an answer to this, but since you snuck it in near the bottom I want to point it out as what I think the key is here. We have run into this problem with a local science fair for families. It was put on by a non-science community group, and they hosted a 9/11 conspiracy mech. engineer. Their claim was similar to this attitude, that they are not willing to take editorial stance on the content of what they provide.

    It’s a dangerous attitude, but I don’t know what the history behind this is in the ad world. Companies like Groupon need to have consciences, but when you weigh profits vs. integrity . . . I don’t know how a company makes that call. I only know how science makes it.

    I’ll tell you this, though: “Don’t shoot the messenger” is not a very effective defense.

  9. Constance Reader says:

    Joe H., that’s absurd. By that logic you’d hold every ad copywriter at every newspaper and magazine accountable for every ad they are commissioned to write based on information provided by the customer buying the ad. Don’t hold the plumber accountable for the information he gave the copywriter about his own business, hold the ad writer accountable, unless the plumber pays for a disclaimer that his claims are merely his biased opinion of his own plumbing skills.

  10. Peter Couch says:

    I check http://grouponbot.com more often then I check groupon now.

  11. Paul Raeburn says:

    Interesting, and unfortunate, that most of the discussion has to do with who wrote the darn thing.

    Emily is calling out this solicitation, and she should. The issue here is that this high-tech darling is sending out offers that are nonsense. If you like a foot bath, go for it. But let’s leave the ions and toxin-seeking magnets out of it.

    It’s in Groupon’s interest to clean up its act. If it’s willing to promote ionic foot baths, should we trust the claims in its other offers? Such as that tooth whitening thing?

  12. Constance Reader says:

    Again, Raeburn, that is utterly absurd because that same token the New York Times, People Magazine, Rolling Stone (read the ads they run?), Wall Street Journal and every other paid publication in existence must “clean up their act” by refusing to sell ads to…um…legal businesses providing legal services. Because some people do not believe those services are useful. Obviously, many consumers disagree with you, else none of these businesses would exist in the first place.

    The only thing that is in Groupon’s interest is to do exactly what it is already doing — selling ads to businesses who wish to attract customers by offering deals.

    If someone does not like woo, fine, but direct your vitriol toward relevant targets. Such as the practicioners of said woo.

  13. Sarah says:

    Regardless of who wrote the copy, the bigger point is right on the mark. There is an endless stream of articles and advertising touting the idea that we are full of toxins that can be removed by colonics, foot baths and dietary “cleanses”. On the one hand this belief in toxins seems to have deep ties to our western culture’s belief that the body is “bad” and therefore always ready to attack us from within. We must be on guard at all times (note the frequent references to “silent killers” on the covers of women’s magazines). On the other hand, if we are genuinely concerned about toxins in our bodies we would do much better to work to regulate mercury emissions from coal plants, pharmaceutical waste in our water, and other environmental pollutants which do indeed make their way into our bodies, and which can not be removed by a mere foot bath (though I admit foot baths are delicious, colonics not so much!)

  14. karen says:

    I love that ad! It’s hilarious. The writer of the ad isn’t serious – its “tongue in cheek”.

  15. Peter R. Limburg says:

    Constance, please remember that nothing is established as a fact just because large numbers of people believe it. Crowds CAN be wrong, and often are. I’m with Paul Raeburn on this.

  16. Peter R. Limburg says:

    Sarah, you’re right.

  17. Peter R. Limburg says:

    Karen, I think you are being too charitable in your interpretation.

  18. John B says:

    Junk science yes, but Groupon is nothing more than cleaver advertising medium.

  19. Steve White says:

    Groupon is a loser company and should be ashamed of the superbowl tibet ad they ran. It was in bad taste.

    My friends and family, including myself, will never support them unless the CEO and those responsible are fired.