Consumers won’t pay a premium for products if they think manufacturers’ claims lack credibility, says Philippa Varey

The use of health and hygiene claims in advertising has a long and chequered history. Early cigarette campaigns relied on ignorance of the detrimental effects of smoking, but in recent years misleading advertising has become subtler.

So how should manufacturers of household and food products strike the balance between accurate science, eye-catching copy and a message that raises awareness of health risks without scaremongering?

At the Royal Society for Public Health, we accredit the health and hygiene claims made for household and professional cleaning products.

Bizarre applications include one for an industrial cleaner claiming to kill germs that aren't harmful, anti-bacterial coatings for products that are never touched and toilet cleaners that will reduce staff absenteeism. Our role is to challenge the science behind the claims and give consumers the reassurance that the products will do what they say on the tin.

Clearly, differences in chemical make-up are fertile ground for product differentiation, but a cynic might conclude that some claims are deliberately obscure. This has become less common with the introduction of regulations on both the scientific and marketing sides. But another factor has grown to take its place. Over-hyping of risk is now a recognised tactic that, combined with over-complicated science, puts the consumer at a disadvantage.

Most people don't have much idea about the science behind hygiene in the home, and the only information they ever see is in advertising. The protection of public health is beneficial on so many levels that we expect reputable companies to apply high standards to their use of scientific claims.

Taking a responsible approach to issues such as preventing the spread of disease informs the Corporate Social Responsibility agenda and builds brand value.

The companies whose claims we accredit all take scientific research seriously, value an independent review of their scientific evidence and don't use scare tactics to sell their products. As a result, people trust them, accept premium pricing and stay loyal. And isn't that what successful marketing is all about?

Philippa Varey is accreditation manager at the Royal Society for Public Health.