Marketing Useless (Magnetic) Products

Just read a neat story about using magnetic pulses to treat certain kinds of depression. (It’s a pretty limited technology. The effect is small, and it’s only recommended for a small subset of patients with clinical depression.)

My worry is that this weak, but scientifically-grounded, new product will only encourage (and, to those who don’t read the fine print, sanctify) the huge “magnet therapy” industry. “Magnet therapy” companies sell magnets to be applied to various ailing body parts. There are magnetic bracelets, magnetic mattress pads, magnetic ankle-wraps, and so on.

Problem is, “magnet therapy” doesn’t work. You can’t use magnets to cure lower back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, or anything else. It’s quackery. But it’s legal (in most places?) as long as you don’t make any specific health claims. You can get away with implying health effects. You just can’t make them explicit. If you made them explicit, you’d have to back them up with, say, evidence. Which you can’t. Because there isn’t any. But companies can still make a killing (perhaps literally, if people are misled to use magnets rather than something that works) by playing on people’s naiveté.

Take just one company as an example. The website sells a whole range of “therapeutic” products, and boasts a “satisfaction guarantee”, probably based on the knowledge that most unsatisfied customers will lose their receipt, forget about the guarantee, blame themselves, or whatever. To avoid lawsuits, the company is careful to avoid medical claims. In fact, buried in the fine print at the bottom of their “Guarantee” page is the following:

Norso magnetic therapy products are not sold as medical devices. Our Norso magnetic products are not sold to cure diseases. No guarantee of effectiveness of product is made…

It’s an entirely unethical business (not a verdict I spout very often). Am I being unfair? After all, the people selling these products could actually believe in their own products, in which case they’re merely fools, not unethical. But when — disclaimers aside — you sell a product intended to help people, it seems to me that you have an obligation to figure out whether it really does.

For more info, see this editorial from the British Medical Journal: Magnet therapy: Extraordinary claims, but no proved benefits.

5 comments so far

  1. Quinn Comendant on

    I’ve suffered from RSI in my hands and wrists for about 7 years as a software developer. I’ve had to take time off the keyboard occasionally because of the pain. Three years ago an acupuncturist recommended wearing magnetic bracelets. I was skeptical at first, but after a couple months of wearing them 24/7 the pain decreased and today I’m able to work completely pain free. That is, until reading your blog post and the referenced research materials. <>Suddenly the healing properties of my bracelet are gone!<> My wrists are already beginning to ache again. Thanks for keeping me from being misled.

  2. Chris MacDonald on

    Quinn:Anecdotes are a poor substitute for evidence. Any drug company that tried to market a product on the grounds that someone says they feel better after taking it would be laughed out of business. Randomized Controlled Trials are the gold standard for figuring out if something works.Magnet therapy fails that test.Chris.

  3. DUE on

    Part devil’s advocate, part real questioning of established paradigms: Placebo effect is shown to be real — e.g., Significantly more common cold patients feel better after getting useless prescriptions. What’s to say that these “magnetic” quackery induce some real effect? I think there’s something about Western medicine needing to know how things work which limits the amount of therapeutic options, e.g., Chinese medicine that works but the effect cannot be narrowed down to certain isolatable chemicals.

  4. Chris MacDonald on

    PJG:That’s a fair question. Frankly, I wouldn’t insist that we understand the <>mechanism<> by which magnet therapies work, <>if<> it were in fact true that they worked. But magnetic therapies don’t, in fact, work. They may well induce some placebo effect, but I suspect that is typically short lived (at least, I’m still waiting for evidence showing that the placebo effect from magnetic devices is sufficiently long-lasting to make their sale anything other than clear fraud).Also, there remains the basic point that what people are <>paying<> for isn’t a placebo: they’re being told the magnets are <>doing<> something — that is, they’re being lied to. It might be a well-intentioned lie, but it’s still a lie.Chris.

  5. […] Marketing Useless (Magnetic) Products (October 21, 2008) […]

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