Wednesday, October 7, 2009

RE: 10 Brainiest States: Bulls hit-- Advertising as Magazine Article, And It's Like They're Not Even Trying to Hide It

MSN, a supposedly serious website, has a link on its homepage to a story ("How Smart is Your State?") from US News & World Report, a supposedly serious news magazine, that touts a study claiming to rank the "brain health" of the various states. As the subheadline puts it, "A new study ranks the 'brain health' of all 50 states, with a heavy emphasis on a healthful omega-3 fat."

The first paragraph promises much:

If you sometimes find it difficult to concentrate or experience the occasional "senior moment," don't be too hard on yourself. It might just be the state you live in.

So, according to this article's first paragraph, the state in which you live can affect your ability to concentrate. This sounds serious. They must have some pretty strong evidence to back this up; I mean, it's US News & World Report, right?

To raise awareness about the state of the nation's "brain health" and to encourage people to take action toward improving their own brain function, researchers released an index that purports to rank the "brain smarts" of all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Okay, these mysterious "researchers" want to raise awareness about something called "brain health," which sounds important (who doesn't want a healthy brain?), and encourage better brain function. So they released what the article is now calling an "index," as opposed to a "study" (per the subhead), which doesn't sound as impressive. And we're two paragraphs in, and we still don't know who these researchers are.

Diet represented 36 percent of each state's score. Of several factors used to calculate the brain-healthfulness of the foods each state eats, sales of fish and DHA-fortified foods were weighed most heavily; they made up 10 percent and 12 percent, respectively, of the diet score. Measures of the population's physical health accounted for 25 percent of each state's overall score; mental health accounted for 24 percent; and social well-being 15 percent. In all, 21 measures went into calculating each score. The creators of the index examined existing data on these metrics for all the states and the District of Columbia. The data came from agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Wait- that's the third paragraph? Now I'm more confused than ever. How did they break down the percentages? Why does diet make up 36% of the "score," while "social well-being" only got 15%? And what the hell is "social well-being," anyway? Who decides the parameters of that? I know a few shut-ins with a far different idea of what "social well-being" is from my more outgoing friends.

And, they measured diet based on food sales? Sales in grocery stores? Sales from online vendors? Sales of foods in restaurants? In co-ops? Where on earth did they get the sales figures, and what stores participated in the whatever "metric" they used to measure? And why were DHA-fortified food weighted most heavily?

You don't have to be a genius to understand why the index, dubbed the "life'sDHA Index of Brain Health," was based partly on DHA consumption. Its developer and sponsor, Martek Biosciences Corp., produces dietary supplements and products rich in DHA omega-3 fatty acids, including the life'sDHA brand. Studies suggest omega-3s can be important to healthy brain development.

Ah. We have to get a full four paragraphs into the article before we find that it is not a cold piece of reporting on a serious "study" or "index" compiled by impartial researchers- this is a motherf*cking advertisement for Martek Biosciences Corp, which produces dietary supplements. But that isn't all! In an article from the New York Times from January 14, 2007, we learn that they are trying to make deals with food makers to put their "magical" omega-3 sh*t in everything:

IT is not easy working inside Martek Biosciences, which has been trying for years to persuade food makers to add an omega-3 fat found in algae to everything from cheese puffs to cornflakes.
Martek has had considerable success adding an omega-3 fatty acid called docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, to infant formula. And, on paper at least, DHA also sounds like the perfect supplement for Americans, who seem to grow more obsessed with healthy eating the more poorly they eat.

If food makers would only sprinkle some DHA into everything from the milk people put in their coffee each morning to the chocolate bars they snack on at night, Martek’s scientists say, consumers would end up with healthier hearts, sharper minds and better vision.

They've been pushing this sh*t for years. (And in case the whole "dietary supplements" thing doesn't work out, they're getting into "biofuels," as well. They're all over the place, helping humanity!) Have you ever heard of them? I hadn't, until today. Until MSN's home page linked to an "article" from US News & World Report about a "study" (or is it an "index"?) supposedly ranking the 10 "brainiest" states based on totally unbiased and sober scientific reasoning.

It's like they're not even trying, for crying out loud. You cannot trust us! We have been bought by "Big DHA!"

Back to the motherf*ckers at US News:

"Our goal was to draw attention to the fact that your brain health isn't solely genetic—that you get to modify it," says Michael Roizen, a doctor of internal medicine and anesthesiology, author and adviser for the index.

No, your goal was to draw attention to Martek Biosciences Corp. And your accomplices at US News & World Report helped you do just that.

Is anyone else suddenly hungry for docosahexaenoic acid?

It's not until we get to the article/advertistement's 8th and 9th paragraphs (and past the meaningless "top 10" list") that we see anything even remotely resembling "journalism."

Medical experts who are unaffiliated with the index echoed the importance of taking proactive, preventive steps to protect brain function, but some pointed out that Martek might have a special interest in promoting DHA omega-3.

"It's curious that they're focusing on DHA," says John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He cites studies that suggest another kind of omega-3, EPA, may be more important to brain health than DHA. Yet DHA—better known for its heart-health benefits than its brain-boosting powers—was the only form of omega-3 that factored into the index's methodology.

Yes, Martek might have a special interest in promoting their product. Their stock price is down almost 21% over the last 52 weeks. Thank gosh the US News "reporter" did some actual "reporting" for this story! Just in time to cover the index/study's meaningless list of the 10 states that ranked "lowest":

The brain health evaluations, performed by researchers at Martek Biosciences Corp., were determined through an analysis of third-party data on the diet, physical health, mental health and social well being of the residents of each state.

"The results show that the majority of the top-10-ranked states border or are near the Atlantic or Pacific oceans," says Michael Roizen, author and adviser to the Martek index. "One hypothesis is the accessibility of fish with its healthy fats and protein." Martek manufactures products fortified with DHA, a form of health-promoting omega-3 fat found naturally in certain fish.

Whaat? Reading the entire article/advertisement, all we get is an uncritical report on the results of this "study/index." We don't even get that half-assed "some pointed out that Martek might have a special interest" paragraph. All we read in this particular article is that people in states that aren't near the ocean (that is, the vast majority of them) should be taking Martek's product.

Come on, US News & World Report. You're supposed to be a f*cking news magazine. I know that magazine ad pages are down, waaaayyyy down, but is the answer really to sell advertising as articles?

My question now is, Will those new federal trade commission rules regarding blogging and advertising affect US News & World Report?

On Oct. 5, the Federal Trade Commission issued a set of updates to its guidelines for acceptable use of endorsements in ads. For the first time, the revisions specified that bloggers, like mainstream media outlets, are required to disclose any "material connections" they have to a brand or product they write about.

I sure hope someone at the FTC is investigating US News & World Report over this!

Delicious salmon and oil pic source.
Martek pic source.

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