Hormone-free contraceptive app Natural Cycles has been reprimanded by the UK's advertising regulator for making "misleading" Facebook claims about the efficacy of its product.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said statements published online last year by the brand, which bills itself as a 'stress free' alternative to traditional birth control, could be misinterpreted.
The main claims the ASA took issue with were Natural Cycles was ‘highly accurate’ and a ‘clinically- tested alternative to birth control methods’.
Natural Cycles is a 'digital contraception' service that charges women around £40 a-year.
For this, they get access to an app and a thermometer that's accurate to two decimal points. Users register their temperature as soon as they wake up, then the app predicts whether they're fertile or not – pinpointing when they can (or can't) have unprotected sex.
Three people complained about a Facebook ad which appeared last July promoting the app. When the ASA launched its investigation, the brand removed the ad.
The paid-for post read: “Natural Cycles is a highly accurate, certified, contraceptive app that adapts to every woman’s unique menstrual cycle. Sign up to get to know your body and prevent pregnancies naturally”.
An accompanying video below the text also stated: “Natural Cycles officially offers a new, clinically tested alternative to birth control methods”.
The complainants challenged whether some of the claims made in the copy were misleading and could be substantiated and the ASA upheld on all accounts.
'Low levels of perfect use'
Natural Cycles argued that it had a certificate from the EU, based on clinical data, that showed it was approved for use as a contraceptive.
It also argued that in scientific trials the app was shown to be 'highly accurate' with a typical-use efficacy rate of 93% and a perfect-use efficacy rate of 99%.
The firm further clarified that the claim 'clinically-tested alternative to birth control methods' was a quote from Business Insider, which it considered to be correct.
Despite its protests, the ASA said the claim 'clinically tested alternative to birth control methods', presented alongside the 'highly accurate' statement would be understood by women to mean that the app was a steady method of contraception that could be used in place more established preventions.
The ASA reviewed three papers based on the accumulated data obtained from the app and considered that the most notable study was one that included data from over 22,000 users of Natural Cycles between 2014 and 2016 who had used the app to prevent pregnancies.
Because the Natural Cycles app required considerably more user input than most forms of contraception: with the need to take and input body temperature measurements several times a week and record when sex had taken place; the research and evidence showed that 91.7% of users did not become pregnant over the course of 13 cycles based on typical use of the app.
"Given the very low level of perfect-use by users of the app and the significant difference between the effectiveness of the app when in perfect- and in typical-use, we considered that it would be misleading to base an accuracy claim on the perfect-use results and that the relevant data was the level of effectiveness seen in typical-use."
It went on: "We understood that the typical-use effectiveness of the app was comparable to that of some other types of contraception, such as barrier methods, but was significantly lower than the most reliable methods, such as long acting reversible contraceptive methods.”.
The ad has already been removed but the ASA warned Natural Cycles not to state or imply that the app was a 'highly-accurate' method of contraception and not to "exaggerate" the efficacy of the app in preventing pregnancies.
'Providing women with the info they need'
The regulator launched its investigation into the ads earlier this year, amid separate reports women had faced unwanted pregnancies while relying on the digital method.
"We respect the outcome of the investigation by the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) into one Facebook advertisement, which ran for approximately four weeks in mid-2017. The investigation was initiated nearly 12 months ago and the advertisement was removed as soon as we were notified of the complaint," said a Natural Cycles spokesperson.
"We are committed to being open and transparent in our communications to ensure our message is clear and provides women with the information they need to determine if Natural Cycles is right for them. As part of these efforts, every advertisement undergoes a strict approval process.
"Natural Cycles has been independently evaluated and cleared by regulators in Europe and the US based on clinical evidence demonstrating its effectiveness as a method of contraception."