Monday, August 1, 2011

Behind the Label: "Dermatologist recommended..." part 1

So I was making my way around the grocery store cleaning aisle yesterday looking for some green seals to investigate (I know what an exciting life, skulking around grocery stores) and I noticed something that has intrigued me for a while.  "Dermatologist recommended."  What does this mean?  I have often wondered about this phrase in the context of skin care products from my aromatherapy background but it is also used on laundry detergents.  I found this especially interesting considering the products it was found on were also labelled "Toxic" and were heavily scented.  What is up?

So I decided to figure out what this phrase means.  First I looked at the Canadian Dermatologist Society, nothing.  Then I looked at the American Dermatologist Society, again nothing.  So I thought, what about Industry Canada labeling?  I looked through their labeling procedures and found lots of information on truth in advertising and the use of misleading statements, but nothing that specifically discussed this issue.  I then checked out the Competition Bureau, an enforcement agency looking at how businesses operate.  Again, nothing.

The only thing I found was one blog entry saying that the phrase is meaningless.  A company can have one dermatologist like their product and label it "Dermatologist recommended."  There is no oversight or governing body to check up on who uses the phrase.  In other words, you can create a toxic, heavily scented product and as long as one dermatologist is willing to approve it, you are good to go!

I find this situation very interesting because it demonstrates a concept I have been thinking about lately in relation to my thesis - symbolic capital.  Dermatologists, being members of the medical community, have symbolic capital associated with their name.  In our society, especially mainstream society, doctors of all types are afforded high levels of respect and trust.  Because of the extensive training they undergo and the vows they take, they are allowed to self-govern.  Doctors are entrusted with this right.  The high levels of trust are their symbolic capital.  The public assumes that doctors will act in an ethical manner.

When a member of the public sees the phrase, "Dermatologist recommended" the assumption is that this phrase is regulated simply because of the high levels of trust we place in our medical professionals.   I am going to look into this issue more but I assume that dermatologists get paid well to "approve" products.  When individuals within organizations take advantage of the symbolic capital the organization has accrued over time the only result is a slow (and sometimes fast) erosion of this symbolic capital.  In our modern world of instant communication and increasing transparency, business practices that focus on short-term gain rather than on long-term integrity and trust are harder to maintain.  Medical organizations need to take a hard line against false advertising and taking advantage of the public's ignorance because ignorance only lasts for so long.  A trust relationship is destroyed much faster than it is built.