If a Ponds moisturiser is endorsed by, say, The Ponds Institute, it’s pretty clear that the information provided might be a little biased, even if the experts are wearing white labcoats. But what if a product, for example Head & Shoulders anti-dandruff shampoo, was endorsed by a body called the Australian Hair & Scalp Foundation? Would you envisage a team of experts, backed by a host of research? Market researcher Dr Stephen Downes investigates an intriguing story of just what’s behind a couple of institutes used by Procter & Gamble to promote their products. As he digs past the epidermis to see what lies beneath, he embarks on a winding road of ASIC searches and conversations with a help line in Manila. At the centre of the story is one man, a respected doctor, who’s lent his professional stamp to P&G. But at what cost?

Last week, prominent and respected Melbourne dermatologist Rod Sinclair was very visible across the print and electronic media as he launched a “fast-track” skin cancer clinic at St Vincent’s Hospital, where he is Head of the Department of Dermatology and a Professor of the University of Melbourne.

But Professor Sinclair, Director of the Department of Dermatology at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, has had an undeclared presence on our TV screens for the last few months – one that TV viewers and consumers could not have been aware of and one that has taken considerable time and effort to uncover.

Late in 2007 a commercial for “Head & Shoulders” anti-dandruff shampoo claiming endorsement from the “Australian Hair & Scalp Foundation” began screening in Australia. Not surprisingly, a few inquisitive consumers wanted to know more about this “Foundation” – what kind of organisation it was, where it operated and who was behind it – and began blogging about it.

Then, as now, a Google search for the Foundation yielded no hits other than a couple of references directly associated with the Head & Shoulders brand and its owner, global consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble. No website, no street address, no links to healthcare or academic institutions – essentially, a blank.

Within the last couple of weeks, a TV ad campaign for Olay Total Effects – a P&G cosmetics brand – has been citing the “Asia Pacific Centre for Skin Ageing” in support of its anti-ageing claims. A Google search for this “Centre” yields no hits at all; spell it “Center” and you get a handful of mentions via a Thai PR company that is apparently managing the product launch for P&G in Asia.

So that’s two P&G consumer products, two advertising and PR campaigns costing probably hundreds of thousands of dollars, and two equally mysterious “institutes” providing scientific endorsement. But the similarities don’t end there.

According to the ASIC register, Australian Hair & Scalp Foundation Pty Ltd is a privately-held company registered in Victoria with $100 in paid-up shares in the hands of a single director, Rodney Daniel Sinclair. Asia Pacific Centre for Skin Ageing Pty Ltd has an eerily similar ASIC registration – another private company with $100 in share capital, same registered address, same Rodney Daniel Sinclair as sole director.

Suburban Melbourne accountants Orr Martin & Waters initially confirmed that their firm is the registered office of each of the entities but were very defensive: staff were “not authorised to disclose” addresses or phone numbers. They were private companies, I was told: “How would you like it if someone gave away your personal information?”

The ASIC register gives the “principal place of business” for both the AHSF and the APCSA as 41 Victoria Parade, Fitzroy, the street address of St Vincent’s Hospital, a major Melbourne public hospital run by the Sisters of Charity. However, neither of the names was known to the St Vincent’s switchboard operators and neither could be found in the St Vincent’s Health telephone directory.

The St Vincent’s Dermatology Department website lists numerous foundations and other bodies as supporters but not the AHSF nor the APCSA, and numerous pharmaceutical companies as sources of funding but not P&G.

Mike Griffin, Communications Manager at St Vincent’s, was not aware of either entity and confirmed that neither was operating under the St Vincent’s Health banner or located on hospital premises. He told me that he assumed that they were “a couple of private entities” established by Professor Sinclair to undertake private consulting work – something that hospital specialists with the right to private practice often do – but seemed surprised that they would be listed as operating out of St Vincent’s.

My call to Mike Griffin prompted a return call to me from Rod Sinclair that evening. Both bodies, said Prof Sinclair, were not-for-profit organisations established by him but with a number of other members relevant to their respective areas of interest – Australian and international dermatologists in the case of the APCSA, and other scientists and researchers with an interest in hair in the case of the AHSF. He was able to provide a web address for the APCSA while we spoke and – by email the following day – the AHSF. Both were “affiliated” with the Dermatology Department at St Vincent’s, he said, but he agreed that neither had any physical presence at St Vincent’s or anywhere else. No offices, no labs, no receptionist, no phone lines.

Prof Sinclair explained that the APCSA had been established in order to try to make the research undertaken by cosmetics companies – most of which is never published for commercial reasons – more accessible and more subject to scrutiny. The AHSF had similar origins and goals, although it was also hoping to eventually undertake some independent original hair research.

Neither entity has so far received funding from any company other than P&G, said Prof Sinclair, although they remained open to all approaches. Each had been established with a grant from P&G and, in exchange for further funding, had agreed to look at P&G’s internal data, review those data and endorse claims as justified by the research.

He emailed me a copy of what appears to be an internal P&G memo, set out as answers to questions and objections, in a format often used internally to brief sales staff. It reads, in part:

P&G will share with APCSA its own scientific data on Olay Regenerist’s age-fighting efficacies. APCSA will independently review and validate this data. Where applicable this validation will be shared with our consumers.

There is no mention of P&G on the APCSA website but Olay does get a mention, albeit in a strange sentence that seems out of context and lacks attribution, as though it had been lifted from a P&G publication:

Olay scientists have been engaged in skin ageing research for over 50 years, and are proud to team up with this eminent group of dermatologists from across the Asia Pacific region and to support the research conducted by the APCSA.

And the extent of the APCSA’s role and activities as described by Prof Sinclair appears to be at odds with some of the claims being made by P&G. In particular, Thai press releases (see here for an example) describe “dermatology experts from APCSA” as “recommending” and “certifying” Olay Total Effects, and as having “tested the product” and “conducted research on the ingredients that contribute to the anti-ageing treatment”.

In response to my questions about the claim that APCSA had “tested” and “conducted research” on Olay products, Prof Sinclair emailed me a copy of a single published study conducted by P&G employees in the US supporting the effects of niacinamide – an ingredient in Olay Total Effects – in ageing facial skin. APCSA had also reviewed other internal P&G data that were not yet published, he said, but he could provide no information about APCSA undertaking any “testing” or laboratory “research”, as implied in the Thai media releases.

The claims in the releases might have been based on comments from his APCSA colleague in Thailand, Prof Sinclair suggested. “Not every person on the (APCSA) committee endorses or reviews absolutely everything that we do, but I trust their opinions.”

Prof Sinclair was clearly aware that companies like P&G seek a competitive edge through scientific endorsement of claims for cosmetic and other healthcare products. Ideally, this would come from a body or institution with a brand that was known and trusted by consumers, he agreed.

“What these companies would really like is an endorsement from the University of Melbourne, but we all know that just isn’t going to happen – it would have to go all the way to the Convocation of the University and it could take years,” he said.

“So the way to give them a brand is to start up a new centre or a new entity.”

Other than the TV advertising, just how is P&G leveraging these third-party brands in its promotion? Messages left at P&G’s Australian HQ in Sydney have not been returned, but my call to P&G Australia’s 1-800 helpline was answered in Manila, from where P&G’s consumer feedback and advice service is provided for the entire Asia-Pacific region. I asked for further information about the APCSA, the AHSF and the research, testing and/or certification on which the advertising claims were based. The operator was unfamiliar with the organisations and the claims but promised to get back to me.

A few days later, the Manila centre called me back and provided me with contact details for both bodies – I was told I could contact each via Professor Rodney Sinclair and the phone number provided was for his office at St Vincent’s. P&G also gave me the web addresses that Prof Sinclair had provided but – disturbingly – also named www.skinproof.com as an address for the APCSA. This turns out to be an Olay promotional site which asserts that Olay has “7 anti-ageing treatments in one bottle” and that “the proof is undeniable” but carries no scientific references and no mention of the APCSA.

As to the basis for the APCSA’s “recommendation”, “testing”, “research” and “certification” of Olay products, the caller from P&G’s customer information centre could provide me with no information at all.

“I apologise, but we have no information that we can send you… we will not be able to provide you with any evidence of certification,” I was told politely but firmly. If I wanted to know the basis for the APCSA’s support of Olay’s claims, then I could contact the APCSA on the number provided – in other words, I would have to call Prof Sinclair directly.

“They (the APCSA) will be able to tell you that they certify Olay.” The same applied to the AHSF and the Head & Shoulders claims.

Surprisingly, I could find no mention whatsoever of the APCSA on P&G’s extensive Olay website. There is no reference to research, testing, review of data, approval, recommendation, certification or endorsement of claims. Perhaps most astonishing is P&G’s total lack of effort to provide information establishing the credibility of a “Centre” of which no Australian consumer could possibly have been aware before the Olay TV campaign.

But there is plenty of Rod Sinclair. Under the heading “Prof Rodney Sinclair reveals the benefits of the Regenerist range of skincare products”, the Olay site carries video footage from a “workshop” held at a Sydney restaurant in 2007. Sinclair – looking relaxed in jeans and open-necked shirt – tells host Olay “brand ambassador” Deborah Hutton and a predominantly female audience:

And so this Regenerist technology is about stimulating the body’s natural reparative mechanisms to generate new collagen, to generate new elastin as a way of improving skin texture…

We prepare them in a cosmetically elegant cream so that people can actually use that themselves in their home…

In context, the use of the phrase “we prepare them…” seems to suggest a much more “hands on” role for Prof Sinclair than simply reviewing in-house research, and there’s no mention of the APCSA, only Rod Sinclair the expert skin doctor.

The Australian Medical Association revised its Position Statement on Advertising and Public Endorsement in November 2006 after significant concerns were raised about prominent doctors lending their names to promotions like plastic surgeon Fiona Wood’s ads for Nurofen. The AMA now “advises doctors against endorsement of therapeutic goods in public advertising” and says “caution should be exercised in publicly endorsing any particular non-therapeutic good”.

Are cosmetics therapeutic or non-therapeutic? Prof Sinclair himself told me that the line between cosmetics and pharmaceuticals had become increasingly blurred in recent years, as a number of agents used in cosmetics, sunscreens and anti-dandruff shampoos had been shown to be biologically active and hence “therapeutic”. On that view, public endorsement by a renowned specialist of the anti-ageing effects of a non-prescription product – even if supported by credible, published research – could well be “sailing close to the wind” under the revised code.

But then, Prof Sinclair is on record as being largely dismissive of the “science” behind cosmetic skin creams. In a 1998 article in the student edition of the British Medical Journal, he offered the following blunt opinions aimed at helping medical students separate “the spin from the science”:

…skin care products have very little substantive science to commend them… the basic assumption that such products are required for skin health and maintenance is questionable

Most people do not need moisturizers.

Nothing, except possibly creams containing retinoic acid, has been shown to reverse or prevent chronological ageing.

Cosmetics are luxury items, designed to make the user feel better, irrespective of whether they have any lasting impact on the skin.

So what has happened to bring about such a significant apparent change of opinion in less than a decade? “I started as one of the great cynics, but things have changed a lot since 1998 – there’s a lot of good research that I wasn’t aware of back then,” said Prof Sinclair.

I hope he’ll forgive consumers for remaining cynical.