Did Pom Wonderful Buy Morgan Spurlock's Silence?
Do pomegranates really help with heart disease and erectile health? The evidence isn't clear and it's too bad Morgan Spurlock didn't let us know that.
Morgan Spurlock—the entertainer who once fed himself only McDonald’s for a month, who crisscrossed the dessert in search of Osama bin Laden, and who espouses “Raw for 30 Days,” a diet that can supposedly reverse diabetes—has a new stunt he’d like you to watch.
It’s a comedic docu-buster promoting the cocky, self-deprecating brand that is Morgan Spurlock, who, also happens to be making the blatant pitch for the questionable health-enhancing science that goes into Pom Wonderful’s antioxidant beverages and pills. (Last month, Nicola talked to Spurlock about the film.)
Make no mistake, pomegranates are healthy fruits, full of antioxidants, and their total antioxidant value is similar to that of blueberries and blackberries. But Pom Wonderful has gone a step further. The company has staked a claim on the wonderful variety and its ads tout 100 percent pomegranate juice for healthy benefits like reducing heart disease, blood pressure, and the risk of prostate cancer.
The problem is that the Food and Drug Administration isn’t so sure that these claims stand up under current law. Last year, the agency sent Pom Wonderful a warning letter demanding that the company stop using marketing language that is only permitted for FDA-approved drugs under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic act. (You can view the entire federal docket here.) In other words, the feds want Pom to stop inflating health claims, unless they're prepared to submit research backing those claims.
Here’s where Spurlock comes in. Sure, he’s openly shilling for the company—the movie has the company’s name in its title, after all, and he is literally wearing their logo on his abdomen. His movie, "POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," is itself a movie about product placement, marketing, and advertising and it was only made possible by product placement marketing and advertising.
Entertainment aside, though, Spurlock apparently signed an agreement not to disparage the 15 brands sponsoring his show. And he told The New York Times he knowingly omitted the recent crackdown on Pom’s questionable medical claims. “We were deep into editing at that point. We could have examined it as part of the movie, and we made this conscious decision not to. I just felt personally I didn’t want to open a door we couldn’t close.”
Even in a movie exploring the concept of "selling out," shouldn’t he have opened that door?
Pom Wonderful claims to have dedicated millions to funding research to support its claims, in such publications as the International Journal of Impotence Research. It’s a familiar part of the narrative of health research these days—in case you don’t follow the development of commercial pharmaceuticals. While supported research on antioxidants for prostate health hardly mirrors the horrors fostered by AIDS-denialist and quack vitamin salesmen Mathias Rath—well-documented in Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science—Spurlock would be more provocative had he acknowledged the questionable science behind the biggest product in his film.
If he really thinks the solution lies in “discovering” the underside of questionable marketing, he should go further with his health crusade. So Morgan, if you're listening, there's still time to sell us on one last thing: Pom Wonderful's data on pomegranates.