Malaysia “boob job” advertisement banned in UK

If you are in the medical tourism business, one pitfall that you must avoid is breaking the advertising and promotion rules in your target countries. In areas of medical tourism such as cosmetic surgery, it can be easy to fall foul of the regulations, if you don’t have a good enough understanding of the marketplace where you are promoting.

This week, the Malaysia Heathcare Travel Council (MHTC), one of the innovators in the medical tourism sector fell victim to the UK’s advertising regulations. It resulted in the banning of an MHTC advertisement and attracted significant negative publicity for the organisation in the UK press.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the UK’s advertising watchdog banned a cosmetic surgery advertisement created by the Malaysia Heath Travel Commission for “trivialising” cosmetic surgery. The advertisement was displayed as a poster which was placed in the female toilets of motorway service stations in the UK.

What did the advert say that broke the rules?

The advertisement promoting cosmetic surgery in Malaysia stated:

“Did you know… ‘Boob job’ is the most popular cosmetic procedure for women”

and continued:

“Malaysia is proud to be amongst one of the only countries within the region where medical tourism is promoted by the government. Hence medical tourists can have the assurance of quality care and be guided by the regulation, safety standards and the governing laws within this industry. Our private hospitals bagged three out of nine awards at the international Medical Travel Awards 2014.”

The complaint was that the advertisement was socially irresponsible because it trivialised cosmetic surgery by suggesting it could be incorporated into a holiday. The MHTC agency, Admedia, argued that the ad had not advertised a holiday due to the absence of pricing, tourist or accommodation information, nor did it include an option to sign-up for a cosmetic procedure. They said the ad was informative and promoted safety and high standards, demonstrated by examples of internationally recognised awards.

But the ASA was not impressed. It took a different view:

“….because the overall emphasis of the ad, the wording and visuals, focused on the intervention, followed by an encouragement to undertake breast augmentation abroad it was likely to detract from the seriousness of the surgery offered. We considered that could be interpreted as suggesting that surgery was a decision that could be undertaken lightly, without serious consideration of the nature of the intervention.”

You can view the adjudication on the ASA web site.

The ASA judgement actually names the Medical Tourism Association as the culprit, but it is the Malaysia Heath Travel Commission that placed the advertisement through Admedia in the UK.

Comment from the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council

According to Shobena Singam, Public Relations Manager at MHTC, the advertisement was created by MHTC in-house in Malaysia. MHTC acknowledges that they are in no position to control individual opinions on the advertisement and acknowledge the decision by the ASA.

Shobena is strongly of the opinion that the publicity will not tarnish Malaysia’s image as a healthcare travel destination. “The case was based on one complaint which was raised by one party’s interpretation of the advertisement, which we believe is small considering the millions of people who may have seen the campaign.“

Nevertheless, Shobena regards the possible repercussion seriously. The ASA judgement was widely reported in the UK media and national newspapers read by millions of people:

  • ‘Boob job’ tourism advert banned
  • ‘Boob job’ posters banned for trivialising cosmetic surgery
  • Come to Malaysia and get a ‘boob job’! Advert promoting medical tourism banned by advertising watchdog

Shobena says that in the future MHTC will “exercise enhanced attentiveness in ensuring minimal offense and misinterpretation of the advertising message, purpose and intent.”

Lessons learnt

The MHTC experience shows how easy it can be to break the rules when you are promoting healthcare services in a foreign country. You need to know your target market inside out or you may break rules that you didn’t know existed.

There is also a strong message here for those who wish to attract cosmetic surgery tourism. Tread carefully! The European Committee for Standardization (CEN) has just published a new European Standard in relation to Aesthetic Surgery Services (EN 16372). This embraces the promotion of cosmetic surgery.