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Flat Tummy Tea: why the ASA is cracking down on influencers shilling detox drinks

Will a new ruling put an end to the #teatox trend?

The pictures are nearly always the same. A reality TV star, wearing a sports bra, holds up two sachets of tea for the camera. The larger packet is emblazoned with a light pink, one-word promise: “ACTIVATE”. The smaller one reads “CLEANSE”. These are adverts for Flat Tummy Tea – a detox tea that claims to reduce bloating – but you won’t see them plastered on the underground or splashed across a magazine. Adverts for Flat Tummy Tea most frequently appear on the Instagram profiles of the rich and famous – from Khloe to Kourtney to Kylie Kardashian.  

Today, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has upheld a complaint against one of these ads. Back in March, Geordie Shore star Sophie Kasaei shared an Instagram post espousing Flat Tummy Tea. In a split screen before-and-after style photograph, Kasaei is seen with a bloated belly and a high ponytail. Next to this is a photograph presumably meant to have been taken at a later date, where Kasaei’s weight and her ponytail are down. “Nothings [sic] gonna get you flat the same as this tea will. The excuses are in the past, much like the water weight I used to have,” she captioned the post.

If you follow vloggers, bloggers, or reality TV stars on Instagram, this type of post will be familiar. Social media stars advertise a range of detox teas (#teatox!) including Fit Tea, Bootea, Skinny Tea, Lyfe Tea, and Flat Tummy Tea itself (which retails at £37.21 for a four week pack). Despite a swathe of negative online reviews (“all it does is give you gas and make you go to the bathroom”) and health warnings from medical professionals about senna, a laxative often included in detox teas, celebrities continue to sell these teas. It appears the teatox trend relies on consumers caring less about what’s in a product and more about who it’s in. Will the ASA’s ruling change things?

The ASA have investigated two issues with Kasaei’s post, upholding both of the complaints as a breach of the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) code. The first complaint challenged Kasaei’s claim the tea could help with water weight, finding that the company in charge of Flat Tummy Tea, Nomad Choice, had no scientific data to back up this claim. On Flat Tummy Tea’s own site, their claims are more carefully crafted, forgoing mentions of weight loss for promises of cleansing, energy-boosting, and metabolic benefits.  An asterisk then notes that these claims have “not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration”, yet such caveats are not readily disclosed in celebrity Instagram posts.

The second complaint challenged the very name of the product itself, which is not compliant with the EU’s Register of nutrition and health claims. To advertise Flat Tummy Tea, the product name has to be accompanied by a health claim listed as authorised by this Register – something Nomad Choice lacks. As they cannot yet prove that sipping their tea guarantees a flat tummy, the ASA found they breached the code.

The detox tea industry relies on influencers, so this landmark ruling could affect business. Yet marketers have always been very good at getting round advertising rules. Since 2014, social media stars have had to mark paid-for-promotions with the hashtag #ad (advert) or #spon (sponsored) – and in April, the ASA upheld a complaint against the makeup blogger who failed to do so in another advert for Fit Tummy Tea. Yet in June, Khloe Kardashian snuck #ad in her post for a hair supplement in an arguably disingenuous way. “This is more than just an #ad,” she wrote, “because I truly love these delicious, soft, chewy vitamins”.

Whether the ASA’s ruling will affect influencers and tea companies therefore remains to be seen. Kasaei’s advert only fell under the ASA’s jurisdiction because she is a British star advertising to British consumers, but it is up to America’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to make rulings on any Kardashians advertising tea (it’s worth noting that Khloe posted about the benefits of Flat Tummy Tea and Fit Tea within weeks of each other). Kasaei’s ad has now been banned from appearing again in its current form, and the ASA have told Flat Tummy Tea to ensure that future adverts don’t make claims which aren’t listed as authorised on the EU Register. Before these health claims are registered, they will be unable to use their current brand name in an ad.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The Universal Credit nightmare shows there’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea

The hardest thing to build into any benefits IT project is common sense.

The trouble with Universal Credit is that everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Labour has long backed the concept of rolling multiple benefits into one payment but studiously refused to implement it when in power. Why? Because it takes all the mess and complication that claimants have to navigate and transfers that to the government. It’s like Whitehall volunteering to find your next house, sort out the survey and fix the best mortgage for you. It sounds brilliant – and that should make you suspicious.

“I think it’s quite a good idea, having it all in one go,” says Jo Whitaker when I speak to her at home in Moulton, North Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the reality fell short. Diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2016, Whitaker had to give up her cleaning business as she underwent chemotherapy. She was told – oh, happy day! – that her local jobcentre was one of those testing Universal Credit ahead of its countrywide roll-out.

There was a catch. In order for her to claim Universal Credit, her existing child and working tax credits had to be stopped for six weeks, while her eligibility for the single monthly payment was assessed. She created an online “journal” to record her income and provide supporting evidence and was told that she could apply for an advance, which would have to be paid back later, to cover the time she spent waiting.

She received her payments in November and December, then ran into a problem. Whitaker, a mother of three, owns a house jointly with her ex-husband, but it was on the market and had no tenants. (She was renting elsewhere.) This seems to have given the jobcentre computer conniptions: did Whitaker have an asset that meant her housing benefit should be reduced, or not?

She received a demand in her “journal” a few days before Christmas: show us that you’re paying rent, or we’ll stop your benefits. “I was on my fifth round of chemo and I wasn’t well at all,” she says. “After Christmas, I couldn’t get hold of anyone to give me a straight answer. This went on for about a month.” The January payment didn’t come. Whitaker spent hours on the phone – her mother, listening to our call, chimes in to amplify this point – and she eventually received a letter admitting that it was a mistake to withhold her benefit. “I can remember being on the phone, crying my eyes out,” she says. “Chemo, it does your brain in. It was the last thing I needed. It was an absolute nightmare.”

Yet Jo Whitaker’s story is not a particularly extreme one. She is, she says, lucky to have a great support network, and she never felt truly helpless. Her business experience helped her budget and cope with rectifying the jobcentre’s error. I’ll also admit that when I heard she had a house, I thought: hang on, why is she claiming benefits when she has an asset? As she talked, the situation became clear. But this is the kind of detail that computer systems struggle to deal with: the hardest thing to build into any IT project is common sense.

Many aren’t as resilient as Whitaker. New figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that around a quarter of new claimants wait more than six weeks for their first payment. And because Universal Credit is paid to tenants, rather than directly to landlords, it has significantly increased the number of people falling behind on their rent.

There’s a cruel double bind here. Most people claim benefits precisely because they are in difficult personal circumstances. They have lost their job, got sick, or broken up with a partner and had to move house. Those same circumstances make dealing with bureaucracy more challenging. When the computer says no, it doesn’t just take away one of half a dozen benefits; it can disrupt the only assistance people are getting.

The quiet unhappiness of Jo Whitaker’s story should worry the government. In 2015, the possibility of cuts to tax credits caused enough concern on the doorstep and in constituency surgeries that even Tory MPs quailed. George Osborne’s resulting fudge was to kick back the cuts, promising that “savings” would be found anyway as more people moved to Universal Credit.

The idea that this can be accomplished without people feeling noticeably poorer is optimistic. That it can be accomplished using the existing IT system is even more so. Universal Credit should be a pragmatic project, but it has always been politicised: first by Iain Duncan Smith’s evangelical insistence that he would “make work pay” (even though 60 per cent of UK households in poverty have at least one member who works) and then by his flouncing anger that the project was being used as a cover for “salami-slicing” the welfare budget. IDS must have been the last man in Britain to work out that Osborne wasn’t just pretending to be into austerity; he really loved it.

In 2013, the National Audit Office found that the Universal Credit programme was struggling with a “tight timescale, unfamiliar project management approach and lack of a detailed plan”. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, then the chair of the public accounts committee, concluded that most of the £425m spent so far would have to be written off. The programme was “reset”.

That, in effect, is what Citizens Advice wants to happen again. The organisation is calling for a pause on the roll-out, which is scheduled to accelerate next month. “[It] is a disaster waiting to happen,” says its chief executive, Gillian Guy. “People face severe consequences, like visits from bailiffs and eviction, when they can’t pay their bills.”

Like Jo Whitaker, she believes that the “principles behind Universal Credit are sound”. But that won’t be a consolation to anyone left cold, hungry or homeless over Christmas. In politics, there’s nothing more dangerous than something that everyone thinks is a good idea. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left