The online vitamin and supplement marketplace is fierce, star-studded and murky. The Kardashians endorse gummies they say promote hair health. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop website pushes pills and liquids in the name of holistic wellness. Even the conspiracy website Infowars is partly funded through the sale of potions and powders.
In this crowded field, the start-up Ritual, which sells its own line of multivitamins for women, has tried to stand out by focusing on facts. Its brightly colored ads on Instagram and Facebook have talked up openness around its ingredients, which are packaged in clear capsules and mailed to customers each month. Recently, Ritual introduced a campaign emphasizing its focus on science over gimmicky wellness trends, pitching journalists on its “pioneering message to differentiate between the myths and facts in the space.”
Yet a closer look at Ritual’s marketing showed that the Los Angeles company, which has raised $16.5 million in funding, has not always helped customers separate facts from spin. The company has paid for articles on websites like Well & Good and PureWow, and then taken positive quotes from those articles in its ads on Facebook and Instagram. It has also used news coverage from CNN and The New York Times to suggest that the outlets endorsed benefits from its vitamins.
“People want to believe that there’s some all-natural, healthy supplement that they can take that’s going to make them feel and look better, and a lot of times much of it is based on hype or misleading marketing,” said Bonnie Patten, the executive director of Truth in Advertising, a nonprofit organization.
In an industry built on products that do not require reviews for safety or effectiveness from the Food and Drug Administration, companies can easily get away with making dubious claims.
Ritual, which started selling vitamins in 2016, features a quote from the lifestyle site Well & Good on its home page, saying, “Everyone you know is about to start taking this buzzy multivitamin.” The line is also cited in Facebook and Instagram ads. But while it appears to be an editorial endorsement, it comes from a post that Ritual paid for — the online equivalent of a magazine advertorial.
Another Ritual ad includes a quote plucked from a different sponsored Well & Good post, which links to the article under the excerpt: “Bottom line: I’ll be signing up for that recurring subscription.” This ad, like the other ad making use of a line from a Well & Good post paid for by the company, includes an article link.
Ritual has also featured praise from the site PureWow: “One month was great. But improving my health over time is really the goal. And to do it with a vitamin that I’m not skeptical about? All the better.” That bit of testimony also comes from a post paid for by the company.
Katerina Schneider, Ritual’s chief executive and founder, said the company did not believe it was misleading to use those quotations in its ads, although they were taken from sponsored posts.
“If it were a statement of more substance, about the product’s efficacy or something mirroring a structure-function claim, we would treat it differently,” Ms. Schneider said in an email.
She added that the links included in the ads that quote from the sponsored Well & Good pieces are enough to give consumers an idea of Ritual’s financial relationship with the site.
It’s a powerful marketing tactic, particularly among supplement companies, to refer to popular publications in ads to bolster credibility, Ms. Patten of Truth in Advertising said. “The key really in all this kind of marketing is transparency, so it has to be clear if the content is advertising,” she said.
(Ritual’s ads have also cited unpaid enthusiasm from outlets like BuzzFeed.)
Ritual has sometimes used news coverage about the company in unusual ways. Its home page and several ads feature the quotation, “Multivitamins for people who check the ingredients first,” which it attributes to The New York Times. That phrase was pulled from the display copy on the front page of the Business Day section and does not appear in the linked 2016 business story about Ritual.
Ms. Schneider defended the use of the blurb, saying the phrase was “well-constructed and illustrates our mission better than some of the copy we’ve written ourselves.”
Other ads from the company have said, “Meet the visionary vitamin making headlines in New York Times, CNN, and VOGUE for its clean label transparency and glow-worthy benefits.” The articles about Ritual in those publications did not describe such benefits, but Ms. Schneider said that wasn’t the implication.
Sales of dietary supplements and multivitamins rose to $20.7 billion last year in the United States from $16.4 billion in 2012, according to Euromonitor International, a provider of market research. (That excludes single vitamins and tonics.) The firm forecasts sales of $24.1 billion in 2022. The booming industry has, in recent years, been bolstered by Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, where brands peddle promises to social media users based on whom they follow and what they read.
Consumers who shun beauty supplements endorsed by the Kardashian and Jenner sisters may opt for new lines from the makeup mogul Bobbi Brown or the YouTube personality Tati Westbrook. Goop readers can buy cheekily named vitamin packs like “Why Am I So Effing Tired?,” while Infowars readers can purchase “Brain Force Plus” to help fight the “war” on their minds.
Then there’s the more sober, science-citing — but still Instagrammable — approach of Ritual and start-ups like Care/of, which customize daily vitamin packs for consumers based on a quiz.
Ritual has also aimed to share more information than other multivitamin companies: Its site details ingredients and their origins and says the pills are vegan and free of gluten and genetically modified ingredients.
But consumers should still proceed with caution. Because of a 1994 federal law, supplements can be sold without F.D.A. approval and promote various benefits so long as they don’t claim to “treat, diagnose, prevent, or cure diseases.”
“They can use all kinds of suggestive and deceptive wording to make you think you’ll be healthier by taking their product,” said Dr. David S. Seres, director of medical nutrition at Columbia University Medical Center.
The interest in supplements, which have long been hyped by television doctors, has become increasingly disconnected from what people need for their long-term health, said Dr. Brent Bauer, the director of the Integrative Medicine and Health Research Program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He said he talks to patients at length about diet, exercise and other elements of their lifestyle before considering supplements.
“I’m not averse to the use of dietary supplements and use them in my practice routinely, but they’re never the first answer,” he said.
Dr. Bauer said people should take them only to target specific deficiencies.
“As soon as you say your product is good for everybody, it’s hard for me to see the science,” he said.
Dr. Seres elaborated on that message: “Lots of fruits and vegetables, eating things that look as much like when they came out of the ground, or off the hoof or hook, as possible,” he said. “Less processed food. No extremes. It’s that simple. But simple is boring and doesn’t sell.”