Should you trust brand-funded research?

Research shows that chocolate is good for you, but can also kill you. Red wine increases the risk of breast cancer, but could also reduce it. Sleeping too much puts us at a risk of premature death, but can also be beneficial. As research becomes snackable news, and more and more of that research is being funded by brands, who can you trust?

Chocolate is good for you, but it can also kill you. Red wine increases the risk of breast cancer, but it could also reduce it. Sleeping too much puts us at a risk of premature death, but sleeping can also be beneficial.

Contradictory stories like these regularly hit the headlines of major news organisations, as journalists increasingly latch onto the findings of latest studies to emerge from the never-ending research cycle.

“We have seen an explosion of what I term ‘research as news’ reported in the media,” says ANZA chief executive Lindsay Mouat.

“There is little doubt that research has become a useful source for 24/7 news media. As examples, look at the frequency of stories reporting that wine or chocolate are either good or bad for you. Much of the research is published with minimal analysis of the research itself – is it new? Has it been peer-reviewed? Is it balanced?”

It becomes particularly murky in instances when a corporation commissions researchers to conduct an investigation on a subject directly relevant to its industry. 

This issue recently raised its head in the local market with Auckland University researcher Nicki Jackson and professor Kypros Kypri from the University of Newcastle criticising a study conducted by British anthropologist Dr Anne Fox for Lion. 

The pair claim Fox’s study, which investigates the relationship between alcohol and violent behaviour, was “completely flawed” and “shouldn’t be informing policy on alcohol”. 

“It's just another attempt by the alcohol industry to try and create confusion and get in the way of good positive change in alcohol-related harm," Jackson told One News.

It isn’t unusual for brands to work with researchers to find out more about an industry, but Mouat explains there is an important distinction “between academic research funded by industry,” which includes the research conducted by Lion, and “commercial market research,” which could, among other things, involve finding out more about a specific target market in the lead up to a campaign.

The reality is that whenever a corporation foots the bill for a piece of research, which is then made publicly available, it raises the question of whether the findings can be trusted and, in this case, whether an alcohol manufacturer has a role to play in determining the best course of action to take when it comes to social issues directly related to the industry. 

“You would not exclude car manufacturers from contributing to research into car safety,” says Lion’s external comms manager Sara Tucker. 

“Lion is the largest alcohol manufacturer and distributor in NZ and we believe, and we know our customers, consumers and other stakeholders believe, that we have a role to play and indeed a responsibility to be a leader in the discussion on responsible consumption of alcohol.”
    
Tucker emphasises that Fox asserted her independence from the start of the research project.     
     
“Dr Fox, a prominent, well-regarded anthropologist and an advisor to the British government, very clearly stipulated that she would take the commission only on condition that she had full editorial control.”
 
Regardless of her level of editorial control, Lion would have briefed Fox on what it wanted her to investigate in the study. And in this case the aim was to understand the factors that contribute to the poor social behaviour, which sometimes includes violence.  

“We closely follow the research and broader community debates on this important issue and before Dr Fox’s report there was very little emphasis placed on the underlying social and cultural drivers of poor behaviour,” Tucker says.  

“We want New Zealanders to be able to enjoy safe, fun nights out without fear of violence or anti-social behaviour. This is crucial to the long-term sustainability and prosperity of our business. If the community is serious about real, long-term, sustainable solutions, we must strive to really understand the factors driving a minority of violent and anti-social people to act inappropriately.”

Tucker explains that Lion has already taken active steps to address some of the issues described by Fox in her study. 

“Dr Fox made a suite of recommendations at the conclusion of her report: One of her recommendations is that we need to address the way we approach educating young people about alcohol. Dr Fox talks about young people telling her they have no idea how alcohol actually affects the body and why. Last year Lion created a free online program called Alcohol& Me http://alcoholandme.org.nz/, which educates people about alcohol and how to consume responsibly.”

There's plenty of evidence to suggest alcohol is harmful. And the media loves a binge drinking culture story. But research from the University of Auckland shows that things are changing among the youth. And the growth of the low-alcohol categories for beer and wine shows that responsible drinking is on the rise. 

Altruistic motives

Even if Lion’s aims in commissioning the research were, as Tucker says, to add “a contribution to the community debate” on this issue and even if Fox was given complete editorial freedom, Rob Bree, the general manager of the Research Association of New Zealand says "a large determinant of the direction of a research project will be the client and the brief, ie who is the client, what is their research objective, what is their brief to the party conducting the research, and what kind of research do they specialise in?”

The effect this can have on the research output was evident in the recent study commissioned by Lightox, focusing entirely on the Sky customer database. Even though the findings were reached by an independent organisation, the brief provided by Lightbox clearly played a role in the outcome.  

So can the public trust a piece of research when it has been commissioned by a brand?

“Generally speaking, the client, no matter how altruistic their aims, has a specific objective when they commission research,” Bree says.  

“As receivers of research outputs, the media, the public and other stakeholders need to apply a degree of intelligence to any research report to understand what the research is really saying.”

But this rule doesn’t only apply to research commissioned by brands; universities and other research organisations are by no means flawless in their methodologies. And the academic waters are also being made murkier by the commercialisation of research. 

“We have seen a push from academic institutions for research to not only be published but to be publicised and, in the case of public health a growth in agenda-based research, to support a particular narrative, which feeds into the news appetite,” says Mouat.  

“Some previously respected academic journals have become politicised with specific agendas. In that context it is hardly surprising that industry has also become a research funder.”

In this context, an equal level of care should be taken when it comes to reports that come from reputable organisations, such as universities or international bodies. And, as this Planet Money podcast shows, there is a bias towards positive results in science journals and results can rarely be replicated. 

However, the media doesn’t have a strong track record when it comes when it comes to reporting on news based on research. 

The hype surrounding the recent ‘bacon is as bad as cigarettes’ fiasco is only the latest example in the media taking a sensationalist approach to reporting on research (credit must go to Story’s Duncan Garner who actually interviewed the researcher and investigated the findings, rather than just making jokes about it).

A little further back there was also the case of many media organisations (including some local publications) being left red-faced after it was revealed that a German study on the health benefits of chocolate was actually a clever ruse to show how gullible the media is when it comes to research

To some degree, the media’s tendency to rely on the insights of academic types was also at play in the issue regarding Lion’s research piece. 

It’s worth remembering that the study was almost a year old, and that the media only latched onto it after Jackson and Kypri levelled their criticisms at it.       

“In the modern media world in my experience journalists who have a couple of hours till deadline will not unsurprisingly take at face value press releases from academics who by their very title command respect - and who would not ever be actually seen as lobbyists by the public,” says Tucker, alluding to the fact that they are often paid by interest groups to push their agendas. 

“In this recent story I was frustrated (but not surprised) to have spent considerable time explaining some of the complexities of the Dr Fox report only to have the journalist I had been speaking to simply repeat the press release on the subject verbatim.”

But this isn’t going to change any time soon. Deadlines are only becoming tighter, and first and wrong often seems to be acceptable in a world of click addiction, so we’ll no doubt continue to see more stories about how chocolate makes you fatter, thinner, stupider, smarter, deader or older.

This story originally appeared on StopPress