Most readers will already know that Holland & Barrett are currently running a promotion called ‘Ask our owls’, inviting customers to ask their specially trained staff about any of their products. If the staff member can’t answer, the customer gets a 20% discount. The month-long promo was launched on 9 June complete with one of these Twitter things #askourowls, thus providing, as this blogger put it, an open goal.
It was a sweet opportunity for the well-organised and gobby skeptics, who are waging a war on homeopathy ‘just because they don’t understand how it works’, to launch a…ahem..’spontaneous’ attack. (I imagine all you conspiraloon quacks reading this nodding sagely at this point.) The @Holland_Barrett twitter account was inundated with tweets and retweets by those seriously questioning their ethics, by those taking the piss and by those just gloating at how the H&B twitter account had been inundated with skeptics questioning their ethics and taking the piss.
Of course, the wisdom of H&Bs invitation to customers to engage with them via social media is being challenged. A lot of people are calling it a ‘PR fail’, even a “monumental clusterf*** of a campaign which will surely be referred to in the future as a case study in how not to use social media”. Perhaps.
On the other hand, H&B may be getting pwned on Twitter but the promotion only applies to in-store purchases. H&B sells a load of overpriced crap to a lot of simple-minded and self-obsessed people aka ‘the worried well’. Why, I’m a customer myself and I like a good discount as much as the next ageing hippy. I don’t follow H&B and wouldn’t have known about the promo, had it not been for all those skeptics I follow tweeting about it.
What do I lose by taking up what sounds like an attractively easy challenge? All I have to do is go to my local H&B during this month which, I’m guessing, happens to be a quiet time for sales, ask them something within the rules of the promo and – best case scenario – I’ll get 20% off the price of what I might as well purchase anyway now that I’m there but which would have sat unsold for weeks if I hadn’t gone.
So H&B can’t answer questions about evidence and defend selling products on the grounds that customers want them. So what’s new? H&B don’t market themselves as anything more than a company trying to make a profit. I’m not sure this ‘PR fail’, if that’s what it is, will have done them any harm.
Anyway, a few people have asked me what response I got to my tweeted question about how many molecules of active ingredient were in their 30c homeopathic products. The answer to my question should, of course, be ‘none’. This is what H&B said instead of ‘none’:
We provide 5,000+ lines in-store, including many traditional and alternative therapies and specialist products like homeopathy
(Gosh, yes! I’d almost forgotten that I’ve tried some of their herbal products and they didn’t work for me either.)
Our customers ask us to stock alternative products, because many find benefits in using them for a range of conditions. We know homeopathy has hundreds of years of traditional use behind it, and while we also know its effectiveness is much debated in scientific circules, there are also NHS homeopathic hospitals in the UK. Because Holland & Barrett doesn’t manufacture of produce these heomeopathic rememdies ourselves, we suggest you visit Nelsons or BHA (links to websites included).
Obviously this is a hastily written standard reply intended to address questions of the ‘how the hell do you justify peddling identical sugar pills under different labels as if they had any kind of effect on anything’ sort. Slipp Digby, who asked a different question, got an identical response, as did Martin Cleaver and, no doubt, countless others. They probably got a kid on work experience to draft it, which is why it contains the fallacious appeal to tradition and the way-to-miss-the-point-spectacularly comment about NHS homeopathic hospitals.
But my main gripe is that I only asked them about the ingredients of a homeopathic product and I anticipated an evasive reply like their last sentence alone. I didn’t ask for – and don’t certainly don’t need – another moronic defence of homeopathy, so stuff your 20% discount, H&B, I’ll get my molasses somewhere else from now on.