Consumer Watch: Advertising board takes issue with Weighted Blanket claims

Weighted or gravity blankets have been punted as the miracle product we’ve all been dreaming about, but the jury’s still out on their efficacy.

Weighted or gravity blankets have been punted as the miracle product we’ve all been dreaming about, but the jury’s still out on their efficacy.

Published Jan 18, 2021


Johannesburg - Stress and anxiety wearing you down? Then a weighted or gravity blanket is all you need to count sheep in no time. Because let’s be honest: Who sleeps well during a pandemic?

If you believe the marketing hype around them, weighted blankets are the newest, bestest thing in home treatments for anxiety, PTSD, colic, and even autism. Said to improve the mood as well as calm a restless body and mind, the blankets – weighted with a filling of micro beads – have been selling like hotcakes for years, at a starting price of around R799 each.

Punted as being medically approved, the health care claims suggest deep pressure stimulation helps relax and soothe the body. But the jury’s still out on their efficacy.

Nothing though escapes the sharp eye of consumer activist, Dr Harris Steinman. He lodged a complaint about Homemark’s Anti-Anxiety Weighted Blanket – promoted online – with the Advertising Regulations Board (ARB), which issued its finding on Friday.

The company claims its weighted blanket simulates “… the feeling of being held or hugged” and that this “… increases serotonin and melatonin levels and decreases cortisol levels – improving your mood and promoting restful sleep at the same time”.

It also claims to be useful for anxiety and stress; that it “creates a focus on ADHD (sic); alleviates restless leg syndrome; enhances sleep quality; that it It helps you stay asleep at night; makes you fall asleep faster; improves mood; aids the elderly; and as being similar to getting a huge hug”.

In short: It’s the miracle product we’ve all been dreaming about, when times are tough and we all need a hug.

Steinman – who has complained to the ARB repeatedly about scam products, including to the board’s predecessor, the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa – said he searched PubMed (which comprises more than 30 million citations for biomedical literature from Medline, life science journals, and online books) and found just five recent research papers on the use of weighted blankets.

The review concludes, “Weighted blankets may be an appropriate therapeutic tool in reducing anxiety; however, there is not enough evidence to suggest they are helpful with insomnia”. It also notes that, “The outcomes of these studies suggest that weighted blankets have the potential to be beneficial in limited settings and populations”.

And – crucially – it notes: “Evidence-based research on the effectiveness of weighted blankets in reducing anxiety and insomnia is sparse. More research is needed to define guidelines for the use of weighted blankets in clinical practice and to investigate the underlying mechanism of action. This systematic review can be used to begin an investigation of the use of weighted blankets for larger and more diverse populations”.

The other research articles were limited to studying the impact of these weighted blankets for specific medical conditions and populations, namely autistic children and children on the autism spectrum; people with psychiatric disorders who suffer from insomnia; and adults receiving chemotherapy.

Steinman said given the above, Homemark cannot claim to offer a product that alleviates all the conditions listed to the general public, as there is no evidence to show this is true or possible. Doing so deceives consumers and brings advertising into disrepute.

Steinman noted the advertiser was a serial offender with a long history of making unsubstantiated claims. And he proposed the ARB should take action.

Once again, Homemark did not respond to the ARB’s request for comment. As in previous disputes, the advertiser said it was not a member of the ARB and had no intention to engage with it.

Since the ARB has no jurisdiction over non-members, it can only issue an instruction, order or ruling to its members to withdraw or not accept advertisements.

On the merits of the case, the board noted advertisers must hold independent substantiation for all direct and implied claims that are capable of objective verification.

“ADHD (for which the blanket is said to be beneficial), ‘restless leg syndrome’ (which it claims to alleviate) and ‘increases serotonin and melatonin levels and decreases cortisol levels’ said to elevate mood and improve sleep.”

The ARB directorate agreed with the complainant that research conducted on specific patients cannot be assumed to apply to the broader public, “at least not without express verification from a relevant expert”.

And it says the advertising creates the impression that the blanket was scientifically proven to benefit those with stress, anxiety, ADHD, restless leg syndrome and the elderly.

It also took issue with the claim that the blanket would improve hormonal levels, again implying research and blood tests had been conducted to back up the claims. Furthermore, there was no reference to any research on Homemark’s website.

It, therefore, found the advert communicates unsubstantiated claims, in contravention of Clause 4.1 of Section II of its code. And it’s instructed its members and broadcasters not to accept advertising from Homemark for the “Anti-Anxiety Weighted Blanket”.

On Steinman’s request that the ARB should take action to prevent this behaviour from continuing, the board noted Homemark has had five adverse rulings against it during 2019 and 2020. One of the rulings found the advertiser in breach of a previous ruling.

The board said for each adverse ruling, members – the National Association of Broadcasters (TV and radio), the Association for Communication and Advertising (creative agencies and advertisers), the Marketing Association of South Africa and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (online publishers) – are advised not to accept specific advertising.

That advice though has not been heeded by some members. On Sunday, an advert for Herbex – another serial offender – ran on Carte Blanche. Ultraslim promises to prevent belly fat, aid digestion to improve gut health, increase metabolism to burn fat faster, help users lose weight in 24 hours.

The board ruled against Herbex Ultraslim and Homemark’s Detox Tea, Argan Oil and the Remedy Health Detox Foot Patches on November 11, 2020.

Asked why the Herbex advert was flighted a week after the ruling and why there was no vetting of adverts (broadcasters surely do not advertise penis enlargement products or “miracle” Covid cures), Multichoice said on November 27 that as ARB members, it respects and is bound by the rulings of the ARB and will enforce them.

“There are, however, circumstances that may limit immediate implementation, but we are in consultation with the clients against whom rulings have been made, and the commercials in question are in the process of being removed,” a spokesperson said.

Months later and nothing has been done. When times are tough, it appears to be a case of one advertiser’s money’s as good as the next. Or is it?

* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected] or tweet her @georginacrouth.

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