A Critique of the American Chiropractic Association's
1998 Reader's Digest Advertising Campaign

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

In 1987, the American Chiropractic Association (ACA) invited chiropractors to join what it described as "the BIGGEST campaign in history to market chiropractic." The $800,000 campaign, which would be centered around an 8-page advertising insert in the April 1988 edition of Reader's Digest magazine, would also include radio spots, newspaper ads, promotional materials for chiropractic offices, and reprints of the booklet for use by individual chiropractors. The invitation stated:

This is the biggest public information campaign program ever done in chiropractic's history, designed to fully inform the consumer about the benefits of chiropractic through the most respected publication in America today. Every fourth household in the United States subscribes to Reader's Digest, a total of 16,250,000 households. Projecting that in readers, the magazine reaches more than 53 million adults. The campaign will build the image of the profession, and move millions of people toward their local chiropractor. The informational section will cover every positive aspect of chiropractic in consumer terms. Because of its format and inclusion in Reader's Digest as an insert, it will also enjoy unprecedented credibility and reader confidence [1].

 
Click ro read

The ACA solicitation included a copy of the booklet and a memo in which the magazine's marketing director praised the booklet and said its goal would be to "reshape public knowledge so as to offset public attitudes and affect immediate and long-term public actions." The recipients were urged to by a $200 kit that would contain 100 booklets imprinted with their name, an office display, newspaper ads, radio spots, poster material, a personal marketing guide, and an opportunity to buy more reprints. The ACA Journal of Chiropractic subsequently reported:
  • The campaign was supported by more than 5,000 individual contributions plus donations of $10,000 each from Practice Consultants, the Foundation for Chiropractic Education and Research, the two malpractice carriers: the National Chiropractic Mutual Insurance Company and the Association Group Agency [2].
  • More than 2 million of the inserts were ordered [3].
  • A survey conducted by Beta Research Corporation of Syosset, N.Y., concluded that among readers who had never visited a chiropractor, the percentage who said they were likely to do so went from 12% to 26% [4].
  • The ACA Board of Governors was sufficiently pleased with the results that they launched a second phase with another insert scheduled for the November 1988 issue of Reader's Digest. The second-round solicitation [5] is shown to the right.

A follow-up solicitation indicated that the second round of the campaign did not get as much chiropractic support as the first round.

 
Click to read

 

The April insert was titled, "Which of these doctors are chiropractors?" The November insert was titled, "So A Chiropractor Is Really a Family Doctor?" If you are unable to access my embedded comments in your browser window, download the inserts to your hard drive so they can be read with Adobe Acrobat Reader.

After the April 1988 insert was published, the National Council Against Health Fraud's president, William Jarvis, Ph.D., complained to the Federal Trade Commission that it deceived by exaggerating what chiropractors can do and asserting that its basic (subluxation) theory is valid [6]. Jarvis's letter was accompanied by a detailed critique and other documents that I believe placed the matter in proper perspective. I am not aware of any FTC response to the letter. As far as I know, the FTC has never taken any public action against misleading claims about spinal manipulation. Even worse, in some instances when state licensing boards considered policies that would restrict chiropractic advertising, the FTC expressed opposition [7].

I can't judge whether the inserts were "effective," but I can tell you that both were filled with statements that were false, misleading, or potentially misleading. If you read them, keep these things in mind:

 
  • "Chiropractic" is not a method of treatment. It is a collection of chiropractic behaviors that include spinal manipulation and lots of other things, many of which don't work. Statements like "chiropractic is effective" are meaningless because they fail to identify what is included.
  • Chiropractic's most common treatment is spinal manipulation. Manipulation may have some usefulness in relieving back or neck pain due to tight muscles or joints. But many chiropractors claim that manipulation (which they may call "adjustment") can relieve "subluxations" that supposedly impair nerve function and are an underlying cause of ill health. The scientific community regards this type of "subluxation" as a figment of chiropractic imagination [8]. The inserts do not use the word "subluxation," but their assertions about prevention and general health promotion are based on subluxation theory and are false.
  • The education of chiropractors is vastly inferior to that of medical and osteopathic physicians [9]. The ACA claims that chiropractors are qualified to be primary-care providers, but their training and scope of practice are far too limited [9].

Chiropractic has changed very little since 1988. The misleading claims described in this article are still common.

References

  1. Announcing the BIGGEST campaign in history to market chiropractic. American Chiropractic Association mailer, fall 1987.
  2. $10,000 donations bolster Reader's Digest campaign. ACA Journal of Chiropractic, Oct 1988, p 38.
  3. ACA announces Phase II of the Reader's Digest marketing program. ACA Journal of Chiropractic, May 1988, p 29.
  4. Survey finds Reader's Digest project a success. ACA Journal of Chiropractic, Sept 1988, p 49.
  5. Chiropractic threw its first big punch in April. . . American Chiropractic Association mailer, summer of 1998.
  6. Jarvis. W. Letter to FTC attorney Walter Gross, July 1, 1998.
  7. Barrett S. FTC policies toward chiropractic advertising. Chirobase, to be posted.
  8. Barrett S. Subluxation: Chiropractic's elusive buzzword. Chirobase, May 21, 2006.
  9. Bellamy JJ. Chiropractic White Paper. Institute for Science in Medicine, Aug 2012.

This article was posted on March 30, 2017.

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