The Daily Mail today highlights the RSC's £1m bounty for chemical-free products, and I look through the weird and wonderful things people have sent me to claim the prize.
It would be fair to say that you see a lot of articles in the Daily Mail promoting natural beauty products, but the chemical free tables are turned in today's paper.
Alice Hart Davis has a page (42...) in today's Mail talking about the myths of chemical free products, and the RSC's offer of a million pound bounty to anyone who can place in the RSC CEO's hands a product he considers 100% chemical free ("Natural? Pull the other one").
Alice visited the RSC and the Cosmetic Toiletry & Perfume Association (CTPA) in London to talk about www.thefactsabout.co.uk, the CTPA's website that gives real information about chemicals in cosmetic products.
She was clearly tickled by the RSC's offer made some time ago. When Alice called to get more details, she asked if there had been any decent attempts at getting the money, and that took me back through the archives to find some examples. Here's the advert and packaging that started it all, and some of the weird and wonderful submissions from people hoping to strike chemical free Au.
Miracle Gro Organic Choice
A TV advert for an organic fertiliser sparked this whole thing off. In the advert a beautiful pregnant lady strolled around her garden, audibly pleased that her 100% chemical free fertiliser was safe for her and her baby. We dug out the packaging for the product and, true enough, the claim "100% chemical free" is emblazoned across the top left corner.
Absurd, of course, but perhaps nothing compared with the response of the august Advertising Standards Authority. These guys make headlines every week by banning adverts for all kinds of misleading claims. A recent example is that of BT's "instant internet" adverts, which were banned owing to BT's lack of evidence to justify their claims, despite comparisons with instant coffee.
The ASA's role is to "ensure ads are legal, decent, honest and truthful by applying the Advertising Codes." Taking heart in this noble goal, the RSC complained formally to the ASA about adverts for Scott's Miracle Gro Organic Choice, saying it misled the public by claiming to be 100% chemical free. Their answer? The public were not likely to be misled, because they understood "chemical" to mean "man-made chemical additive".
In the light of the BT case, I'd like to return to the ASA and ask what evidence Scott's could provide for their claims of 100% chemical free. Even if they do not believe the advert to be misleading, it might be interpreted as dishonest. It perpetuates a common misconception and takes advantage of a public who have already been misled for years.
I'm sorry; this is becoming a bit ranty. Upon the ASA's decision, the RSC's Neville Reed went on Radio 4 and offered the prize of £1m to anyone who could place in his hands a product he considered 100% chemical free.
That's the history behind the prize. We've had scores of people approaching us since issuing the challenge, and the following are the good, the bad and the downright ridiculous.
Hands down my favourite submission came from Stephen George of Australia. After some heated email exchange debating life, the universe and everything, Stephen sent some samples of what he said was evidence of a 100% chemical free substance.
Stephen had really done his research. Quantum dots are tiny crystals, on the scale of molecules, that stop electrons from moving about. He sent us a couple of samples of quantum dots, dissolved in a common but nasty solvent called toluene, claiming that an "electron is not a chemical and that the solution/matrix is just a container."
Unfortunately, although he very nearly hits the nail on the head, I'd have to say that the cadmium-selenide nanocrystals and their toluene solvent - definitely chemicals - were necessary to make conditions right to stop the electron. If he were to try to place the dots in the CEO's hand, he'd have to place the containers.
This was my favourite entry for so many reasons, but mostly because Stephen addressed the problem in a scientific way. He did some reading and some understanding of what chemicals are, and applied logical thought to his entry. He was awarded a special "highly commended" prize of £42.44 - the price of him Fedexing his submission.
Now on to the not-so-well researched claims. I'll not list all the examples, but many people have been in touch citing organic this or natural that, claiming each to be 100% chemical free. The one that sticks out is olive oil, because the person concerned was adamant that the natural chemicals are good for you, and man-made ones are bad.
The suggestion of "pure, unadulterated, 100% organic, first, cold pressed olive oil" was not a new one, so I explained that the constituents of even the most unadulterated olive oil were likely to be "oleic acid and palmitic acid and other fatty acids, along with traces of squalene (up to 0.7%) and sterols (about 0.2% phytosterol and tocosterols)." Definitely chemicals (thanks Wikipedia).
It was the response to this that made me sit up and take notice.
For me it’s not about "chemical-free material", Jon. (Well, maybe a little...)
It's about man-made chemical-free stuff. Nature's chemicals are all right in my book. I merely object to stuff randomly (or purposefully) amalgamated in some lab somewhere!
I was disappointed but not entirely surprised with this response. In fact it's what the whole campaign is about - that people are often being misled by marketing to believe that all man-made chemicals are bad, and natural ones are good. Also troubling is the idea that man-made chemicals might be put in to products for no reason. Chemical additives are never needless; it doesn't make economic sense for a manufacturer to include a material that has no use.
If this £1m bounty does anything, I hope it makes people at least think about these things. While they're scheming and plotting their perfect chemical free entry, perhaps they're considering the definition of chemical. Perhaps they're understanding that all these natural ingredients are chemicals, too, and that just because something is man-made it isn't necessarily dangerous. And that just because something is natural, it isn't necessarily good for you.
The weird stuff
Last and definitely least are the submissions that we suspect weren't 100% serious, let alone 100% chemical free, so I'll share them for comedic value. Some are thought provoking and some are just silly; here's the best of the rest:
Time, this is most definitely a material since things can be made from it when combined with other materials and it is most definitely chemical free, since it does not result from a reaction between molecules or atoms. In fact, surely any chemical reaction requires time in some quantity?
Try holding a box (I shall supply you with one, never fear!) which contains, as is so often the case, a cat and some decaying nuclear matter. All chemical, I agree, but you also hold in your hands uncertainty, unless you open it, as per the famous experiment.
You could hold in your hands the absence of 1 million pounds, after you hand it to me. Unless you prefer to transfer the money directly of course. I prefer cash, however.
How about God? Apparently everywhere, and so I don't need to give God to you, and definitely chemical free, being not of this world. We will accept your theories of chemistry and scientific method if you accept ours regarding the metaphysical!
I can most assuredly place into your hands at any moment you choose, my absolute and unadulterated love for you. What a lovely thought, I hear you cry. This is material as it has a place on the material plane, yet free from chemicals - unless you are a doubting Dominic and would postulate that it is a result of chemical processes in the brain. In which case I would say to you sir, ye of little faith, the substance of love is the abstract combination of every person's experience of it.