Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Guardian brings all the nerds to the Yard, and they're like "it's quackery, yeah?"

With apologies to Kelis, and it doesn't even scan.

Anyway, not even a badly constructed blog title could take away from a funny little PR-disaster which happened today to Neal's Yard, courtesy of the Guardian and an internetful of geeks (that's the collective noun, surely? - feel free to provide suggestions below).

Neal's Yard Remedies, the super-ethical, eco-aware health and cosmetics company, had agreed to take part in a Guardian series called "You ask, they answer". In this feature, in the Ethical Living section of the Guardian, internetians were offered the chance to ask Neal's Yard Remedies any question they wanted, although they were generally supposed to be regarding organics and beauty.

By finishing the article with the comment
This is your chance to grill them: from the controversy surrounding the chain's removal of a homeopathic malaria remedy to the benefits and reasons to switch to organic beauty products.
it nicely teed up a complete pwning of Neal's Yards' quackery division.

Now perhaps you haven't been taking your Co-Enzyme Q10 pills (this link may be more useful) or your 100% Organic Pre-Sprouted Aktivated Barley Powder so perhaps you've forgotten that Neal's Yard was the subject of a BBC documentary, investigating the sale of homeopathic prophylaxis for malaria. Unsurprisingly, they were concerned that Neal's Yard were selling an evidence-free sugar pill to protect people from a potentially fatal disease (doesn't seem very ethical to me). There is a transcript of the article here and the YouTube version of it is here. It includes the bit where Susan Curtis, Neal's Yard's Medicines Director storms off in a huff after being made to look extremely foolish. The BBC investigation reported Neal's Yard to the regulatory authorities (MHRA), who promptly spanked their bottoms and forced them to remove the product from sale.

When it came to the Guardian article, the Nerds did not disappoint - after 5 pages of questions along the lines of
Do you see no problem with trying to be 'ethical' while at the same time selling snake oil for a living? (SaltyCDogg)
Surely you don't view it as ethical to sell products which are of unproven benefit and which you don't even know are safe? (Puzzlebobble)
I'll buy the relief of stress and tension, especially if combined with massage, but what evidence is there for the elimination of toxins held in the body? What evidence is there that these toxins exist in the first place?(Peter Sterling)
what is "healing energy"? What units is it measured in and where does it come from?(Tristanod)
Adam Vaughan from the Guardian came on to say
have just had a chat with [Neal's Yard Remedies].

Unfortunately, despite previous assurances that they would be participating in this blog post, I've now been told they 'will not be taking part in the debate'.

So yes, as several people have pointed out, this has become something of 'You Ask', rather than a 'You Ask, They Answer'. I'm still hoping NYR will reconsider.
(They have a habit of pulling out of PR events - apparently they were supposed to be sponsoring a garden at Chelsea Flower Show). An hour later, James Randerson from the Guardian stated that
We have tried again to convince NYR to respond to your comments but they have reiterated their position that they do not wish to enter the debate.

We will keep trying to change their mind, but if they stick to that we will be closing this thread in a hour at 15.00 BST.
Which they did.

Neal's Yard have scored a massive own goal - an epic fail and a prime case study for "How Not To Do PR". They've cried off, seemingly unable to salvage anything from the situation and deciding the bunker was the best place to be. HolfordWatch is contacting Neal's Yard to see if they would like to continue the conversation there - seems unlikely, but we'll see.

I wouldn't like to be the one explaining this cock-up to the Neal's Yard board.......



  1. Do you think woo-merchants get bored of people asking for evidence?

    I'd like to submit "A smug of geeks" :-)

  2. "100% Organic Pre-Sprouted Aktivated Barley Powder"? Sounds suspiciously like malt flour to me - a useful baking or brewing ingredient, available from good homebrew shops for about £3 for 500g. (Non-organic though...)

  3. They really should know better.

    Google "Richard Branson" and B3TA, to learn why messing with intelligent computer literate people is not considered to be a sensible action