Fertility patients in UK targeted by ‘concerning’ IVF adverts on social media

Vulnerable fertility patients are being targeted by adverts on social media that experts warn could be breaching rules by guaranteeing couples a baby or making other misleading claims.

Screenshot of an advert from Unica Clinic on Instagram
Unica Clinic has locations in Prague and Brno but advertises to social media users in the UK. Photograph: social media ad

The Guardian discovered a number of adverts for IVF clinics on Instagram that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) described as concerning and is now reviewing. These adverts are directed at users who show an interest in IVF through their online searches.

The ASA, the advertising industry watchdog, has recently written to UK clinics warning them about being transparent regarding success rates. Official figures show average IVF birthrates using fresh embryo transfers for patients aged 18-34 were 33% per embryo transferred, compared with 4% for patients aged 43-50 when using their own eggs in 2021.

One advert from the Unica Clinic, a health service based in Prague and Brno, in the Czech Republic, appeared on Instagram stories and read: “We guarantee your IVF success”. Unica Clinic did not provide a comment.

The ASA said it regulates foreign-based advertisers if they are directly targeting UK consumers.

There is also concern about companies offering other services to those hoping to get pregnant. A US company that runs an app helping with nutrition for fertility called Gyna also advertises on Instagram stories. If you click to learn more, you go to another page where users are asked questions before predicting when they will give birth if they sign up to the app. When the Guardian filled in the questionnaire a screen titled “Fertility estimate” said: “You will be pregnant by March.”

Gyna said it did not “provide medical services”. It added: “Additionally, we don’t use it [pregnancy predictions] in marketing but we offer a full refund for customers that use our course and are not satisfied.”

Sensor Tower, a marketing intelligence company, said Gyna had had a 150% year-on-year increase in UK ad spend on Instagram as of the third quarter of this year, and that page impressions – the number of times their content was viewed – has jumped 300% year on year.

An Instagram advert which says ‘You’ll be pregnant by March
The Gyna app makes a pregnancy ‘prediction’ after users fill in a questionnaire called a ‘fertility estimate’. Photograph: social media

Dr Catherine Hill, the head of policy and public affairs at Fertility Network UK, which provides information and support for people trying to conceive, said it was “deeply concerned” about the “impact [of the advertisements for clinics] on vulnerable fertility patients.”

An advert shows a pregnant woman next to text that says ‘no baby, no fee’
Ovom Care’s Instagram advert has a ‘no baby, no fee’ promotion – but conditions apply. Photograph: instagram

She said: “Unfortunately, it is not possible to guarantee fertility treatment will result in a healthy baby, and clinics or other organisations should not be suggesting guaranteed IVF success. To do so displays a remarkable lack of understanding because it raises false hope in already distressed patients … Making guarantees of this type may also be in breach of advertising standards.”

Kayleigh Hartigan, the founder of Fertility Mapper, , which collates reviews of clinics, said: “While in the UK clinics have been known to stretch what’s appropriate to say in their advertising, they are regulated closely. Clinics abroad are not regulated in the same way and this can lead to some pretty big issues when they advertise across geographical borders on social media.”

In 2021, the ASA sent an “enforcement notice” to all UK fertility clinics setting out details of how they should promote their services and ensure compliance with advertising and competition codes of practice.

It said: “Clinics should be careful not to misrepresent the benefits of any refund package. Absolute claims such as ‘100% refund’ should be avoided if the reality is that patients will be entitled to claim ‘up to 100% of the costs’.”

Often offers such as this will be dependent on a medical check to see if a patient qualifies and there will be age restrictions. Only a small number of people will be eligible for full refunds.

The Guardian found one fertility clinic, Ovom Care, advertises “No Baby, No Fee”, adding: “Don’t pay for core treatment if you do not reach your goal of pregnancy”. However, this offer is not open to all customers but only a select number who meet their criteria.

Felicia von Reden, the chief executive of Ovom, said she will “check” and “refine the wording to ensure full transparency with patients if needed”. She said: “For us, what is most important is the philosophy behind the approach – reducing the financial risk associated with IVF, for as many patients as possible.”

An advert showing a woman holding a baby under text promoting IVF treatments
The London Women’s Clinic advertised ‘unlimited IVF for under 38s’ on Instagram but has since discontinued the promotion. Photograph: instagram

The London Women’s Clinic advertised “unlimited IVF for under 38s” as well as “100% of your money back if you don’t have a baby”. A spokesperson said: “The treatment offer is always subject to medical guidance” and “follows a set of rules”. They recognised that their current “advertisement may be interpreted wrongly” so they have “discontinued it”.

Instagram said it was investigating the ads. It prohibits ads that include misinformation, mislead people about the services a business provides, or repeatedly use shocking imagery to further a point of view.