In the mid 1960s, I had occasion to have dinner with Gerard Piel, then the publisher of Scientific American, in his apartment opposite Central Park in New York City. Scientific American has been one of the most renowned popular-science magazines around the world for several decades.
The story of Scientific American he told me was interesting and instructive. Before he took it over, the magazine was spending a lot of money on advertising itself while revenue from sales and advertisement in the magazine was small. The magazine, therefore, had been running on losses. After he took it over, the magazine started making substantial profits. He spent zero money on advertising but received notable revenue through advertisement in the magazine, the readership of which increased many-fold. The secret of this transition was quality: particularly, readability and reliability of the information contained therein.
Today – half a century later – Scientific American still does not advertise itself; yet it is perhaps the largest selling popular-science magazine in the world. In fact, there is nothing wrong with the idea of advertisement. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, advertisement means “to make generally or publicly known”, which is a laudable objective that many advertisements fulfil even today. But the number of products that need to advertise themselves to sell has increased by several orders of magnitude, so much so that advertisement has today largely become the art of telling a lie in a way that it appears to be the truth.
An example would be educational institutions. Fifty years ago, no educational institution – school, college or university – advertised itself. Thus, even the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) – a private university but not set up to make money for its promoters – did not spend any resource on advertisements. Today, numerous hoardings in cities and towns, and virtually all newspapers, magazines and even television channels, are full of advertisements of private educational institutions, de facto set up to make money for their promoters. More often than not, virtually no claim made for the institution in the advertisement is correct. The fact is that, even today, no good university in India or abroad inserts paid advertisement anywhere. Thus, Oxford or Cambridge, Harvard or Yale, Jawaharlal Nehru University or University of Hyderabad, do not advertise themselves unlike, say, Amity University or Lovely Professional University, if you have heard of any of them.
With the mushrooming of private hospitals and healthcare centres, and the concurrent decline in the quality and extent of healthcare provided by State-run institutions, health has become another victim of false advertising.
What is unfortunate is that, often, the claims made in the advertisement are so absurd that they would spoil even a legitimate claim made concurrently. I will deal with one such recent ad. The ad carries a photograph of Baba Ramdev along with that of another person. Two organisations – Patanjali Yogpeeth and Divya Pharmacy – are mentioned in the ad. Both these organisations are known to belong to Baba Ramdev though none of them seems to be the organisation that has inserted the ad. In fact, it seems more likely that the ad has been inserted by Baba Ramdev himself or on his instructions.
Consider some statements made in the ad.
The ad says, “After an intense research of 25 years, and conducting tests on over 1 crore people, our Ayurveda Mission is to give a healthy lifestyle to the people of the country successfully.” If “intense” research has been carried out for 25 years, it must have been done by research scientists in an institution and the results put in public domain – for example, by publishing them in respected periodicals as is the practice universally. No such publication is mentioned in the ad or is known to exist. In the absence of any such publication, one may legitimately ask: who were these scientists and what were their qualifications? What was the name and location of the institute? What was the research methodology used? Even if you have all the test results of one individual recorded on one page, for one crore individuals you would need at least one crore pages of recorded data; with 300 pages per volume, the number of volumes of data would be well over thirty thousand. Where are they? Will Ramdev answer these questions? In fact, should not answers to at least some of these questions have been provided in the ad to make it credible, especially when the claim that is being made would seem to be extremely unlikely to be correct on the face of it?
And that is not all. The ad says, “For diabetes and diabetes-induced side effects, Divya Madhumashini is very beneficial. It gives strength to the pancreas and naturally controls diabetes”. Whosoever has written this clearly understands little about the mechanisms of causation of diabetes! And how do you give “strength” to the pancreas?
What is stated under activities of Patanjali Yogpeeth is even more hilarious. According to the ad, there are 10,000 health centres and clinics “running successfully by the Vaidyas trained under the divine guidance of Swami ji and Acharya ji”. Who are these ‘Swami’ and ‘Acharya’ who cannot be named? The ad does not say as to what is “divine” about whosoever they are. And where are these “10,000 health centres and clinics” located?
Under “Research and Publications”, it is mentioned, “A day and night research on yoga, ayurveda and herbs is done by 200 well-read scientists. The preparation of publishing a grand bibliography is ongoing.” Where is such a research centre located, and what are the qualifications of the “200 well-read scientists”? Several bibliographies of medicinal herbs used in India already exist. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) published one many years ago. The Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions in Bengaluru, headed by Dr. Darshan Shankar, has a computerised list of such herbs. What kind of “well-read” scientists are those who are not aware of what has already been done in the country in their own area of interest?
Finally, under the heading “Pharmacology and Clinical Trial”, the following statement is made: “There is a set process of preparing medicines in the modern medicine science. They inject viruses of diseases like [blood pressure], cancer and diabetes in rats and rabbits and then they treat them with their developed medicines. They test the quantity and effects and then they try them on humans.” This entire statement is scientifically as absurd as can be but what takes the cake is the implication that blood pressure and diabetes are caused by viruses! Is this the extent of knowledge of the “200 well-read scientists” that Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Yogpeeth has?
I must give Ramdev credit for popularising yoga as a powerful and effective way of physiotherapy but by inserting ads like these, he is doing an enormous disservice both to himself and to his followers.
Pushpa M. Bhargava is former Vice Chairman, National Knowledge Commission, and former and Founder Director, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad.