My local newspaper is an unending source of amusement in the form of ads for questionable health products—ads that demonstrate clever marketing tactics aimed at scientifically illiterate and gullible readers. Perhaps it is a waste of time to critique them, but I like to think that consumers can be educated about the deceptive methods these marketers use and can learn to think more critically about all such claims.
The latest travesty was a half-page ad for Genius Java with the headline “Skyrocketing Demand Expected For New Memory Boosting Coffee.” There is an appealing picture of two happy, alert elders cuddling and drinking coffee with the message “Iowa engineer invents new K-cup coffee that restores up to 15 years of lost memory and brainpower.” Without reading further, an astute reader’s antennae will already be twitching. If there were really a new discovery that restores lost memory, we would not be likely to first learn about it through a paid advertisement. How likely is it that it would be an engineer who made such a discovery? And how could you measure “15 years of lost memory”? Reading on, it only gets worse.
What Is It?
It is basically coffee in those convenient one-serving K-cups with vitamin B12 added. But not just any B12. They warn that most B12 supplements are the wrong form, containing poisonous cyanide. Over time, they can lead to “brain suffocation” (whatever that is!) and other health issues. Genius Java contains a safe and effective form of B12.
Marketing Ploys Dissected
- The ad was made to look like a news report. They included the required disclaimer “Paid advertisement” but put it in small print and hoped readers wouldn’t notice. By the time they get to the sales offer, readers will be hooked, including some of those who would not have paid any attention to the piece if they had realized it was an ad.
- They used an appealing picture of attractive people so readers could imagine themselves as the people in the pictures.
- “People are lining up in droves.” Are they really? Unsupported claim, appeal to popularity. Join the crowd; don’t ask if the crowd might be wrong.
- “Readers-only discount, limited time offer, supplies could run out.” Buy now; don’t stop to think.
- “Risk free trial offer. If Genius Java doesn’t improve your memory, clarity, mood and energy levels, you won’t pay a penny (except for shipping and handling).” They can make enough off the S&H to more than compensate for the few customers who are not too embarrassed to admit they have been fooled and ask for (part of) their money back.
- “Find out how you can get your own K-Cup machine… absolutely free!” This is tempting. Everyone likes to get free stuff. But companies like to make money. I suspect this offer is contingent on signing up for a program and committing to buying enough coffee for the company to pay for the machines and still make a profit.
- Meaningless, unscientific language: “get a brain boost,” “tired brains wake up again,” etc.
- Scare tactics: “Have you struggled to remember where you left your car keys? Have you forgotten a grandchild’s birthday? Your brain could be at risk. Two-fifths of the U.S. population is lacking this important brain nutrient, and people over age 50 are especially vulnerable.”
- Instilling distrust of mainstream: suggesting that manufacturers use a dangerous form of B12 in their pills simply because it is cheaper.
- Miss-citing authorities: they provide a “partial list of documented benefits from the primary ingredient of Genius Java from the Mayo Clinic, the NIH, and WebMD: improve memory, may help prevent Alzheimer’s, improve mood, boost energy levels, reduce depression, and many more.” They hope you will think those benefits have been documented for their product; they haven’t. They hope you won’t notice that those benefits were claimed for the primary ingredient, which is coffee. Any coffee, not just their coffee.
- They claim that each serving delivers “the recommended amounts to restore your B12 levels in just one serving per day.” But they don’t specify how much that is. They don’t tell us how much of the B12 they put in the K-cup actually gets into the cup of coffee and how much is absorbed into the body, and they provide no evidence that their product has ever corrected anyone’s B12 deficiency with one daily cup or with any number of cups.
What about Evidence?
They cite “30,000 patient case studies showing the ingredients in Genius Java may help improve your foggy memory.” That’s not true. A search of PubMed for clinical studies on caffeine and memory and on B12 and memory yielded 214 and 91 hits, respectively, and most of those hits were irrelevant. For example, one was on hydration and cognition and only listed caffeine as a possible confounding factor contributing to dehydration and one was on lithium and just happened to mention an increase of lithium side effects with high caffeine consumption.
As often happens, there is a kernel of truth behind their claims. Caffeine can enhance performance in various ways. (I know I feel smarter after my first cup of coffee in the morning!) And vitamin B12 deficiency can have serious consequences. Even a mild deficiency of vitamin B12 can cause problems with memory and thinking processes. And B12 deficiency is more common in the elderly.
If people are B12 deficient, they would benefit from supplementation, but there are better ways to get it. FDA-approved B12 supplements are available in a pure form with precise dosage. Supplying it in coffee would be more inconsistent, with dosage depending on coffee intake. If people are not B12 deficient, there is no reason to think they would benefit from supplements. They might, and it would be simple to set up a double-blind test comparing Genius Java to unsupplemented coffee. No such trial has been done, so we have no way of knowing if the coffee would help consumers in any way.
I was surprised by the claim that there is cyanide in most B12 supplements, but there’s a kernel of truth there, too. The most widely used form is cyanocobalamin, and when that is metabolized it releases a cyanide ion. The amount of cyanide is minute, far below toxic levels and far less than the amount of cyanide we ingest every day from our food. Many foods contain cyanide, with higher levels in certain healthy foods such as almonds, lima beans, and spinach. Our bodies eliminate cyanide easily, and it poses no health risk in small amounts. Other forms of B12 are cyanide-free, notably methylcobalamin. Methylcobalamin is recommended by questionable “authorities” such as Mike Adams (the Health Ranger of Natural News) and Peter D’Adamo (of bogus blood-group diet fame), but mainstream scientists have not found any evidence that it is superior to cyanocobalamin.
If you need a B12 supplement, Genius Java is not the best way to get it. If you are not B12 deficient, there is no need for supplements in any form. Genius Java makes unsupported claims. It is driven by marketing, not science. It’s probably not harmful except to the pocketbook, but in the absence of any evidence of actual health benefits, there’s no reason to prefer it to regular coffee.
In one sense it might actually make you smarter: if you can understand why its claims are questionable and can apply those lessons to other marketing claims.
This article was originally published in the SkepDoc’s Corner column on the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website.