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Results Not Typical: FTC Clamps Down on Fraudulent Weight-Loss Claims



sharma-obesity-weight-loss-supplementsOnce of the big news items this week was the announcement of a $34 million settlement with four marketers of weight-loss products that made misleading claims (L’Occitane, which claimed that its skin cream would slim users’ bodies but had no science to back up that claim, and HCG Diet Direct, which marketed an unproven human hormone that has been touted by hucksters for more than half a century as a weight-loss treatment, LeanSpa, LLC, an operation that allegedly deceptively promoted acai berry and “colon cleanse” weight-loss supplements through fake news websites).

According to the US Federal Trade Commission, this is part of its “Operation Failed Resolution” to stop misleading claims for products promoting easy weight loss and slimmer bodies. The FTC will make these funds available for refunds to consumers who bought these allegedly fraudulent products (although it appears that some of these companies may not have enough funds to pay up).

The agency also announced that additional charges have been made against the marketers of two other products.

The FTC is also calling upon broadcasters and other media outlets to stop promoting weight-loss products that promise results that defy science (and common sense) and has release a new guidance document to help spot such fraudulent weight-loss claims.

In a letter to be sent to US publishers and broadcasters, the FTC states that,

“Every time a con artist is able to place an ad for a bogus weight loss product on a television or radio station, in a newspaper or magazine, or on a legitimate website, it undermines the credibility of advertising and does incalculable damage to the reputation for accuracy that broadcasters and publishers work hard to earn.”

Here is the “business” rationale that the FTC has to offer to publishers and broadcasters for refusing to running such ads:

  • No legitimate media outlet wants to be associated with fraud. Accuracy is your company’s stock in trade. Why sully your good name by being known as a publication or station that promotes rip-offs?
  • If scammers are willing to cheat consumers, there’s a good chance they’ll cheat you by not paying their bills. By the time fly-by-nighters have made a quick killing, they’ve disappeared – and left you holding a stack of worthless receivables.
  • You want to protect loyal readers, listeners, and viewers from bogus products that can’t possibly work as advertised.
  • Reputable advertisers don’t want to associate their brands with media outlets used by con artists.

The FTC advises publishers to run a “Gut Check” and to think twice before running any ad that says a product:

  • Causes weight loss of two pounds or more a week for a month or more without dieting or exercise;
  • Causes substantial weight loss no matter what or how much the consumer eats;
  • Causes permanent weight loss even after the consumer stops using product;
  • Blocks the absorption of fat or calories to enable consumers to lose substantial weight;
  • Safely enables consumers to lose more than three pounds per week for more than four weeks;
  • Causes substantial weight loss for all users; 
  • Causes substantial weight loss by wearing a product on the body or rubbing it into the skin.

Furthermore, all weight-loss ads should include “clear and conspicious” disclosure of how much weight consumers typically can expect to lose. (emphasis mine)

Whether or not publishers and broadcasters will actually heed such advice remains to be seen. My guess is that running such ads may be far too lucrative a business for these agencies to simply give up.

To educate broadcasters and the public, the FTC has released an online “Gut Check” test, where you can check your own ability to spot false weight loss claims – to take the test click here

While the FTC is to be commended for taking these steps, we have yet to see similar punitive action against irrational and unscientific weight-loss claims here in Canada – I wonder why.

If you would like to see more regulation or have had your own experience with such products, I’d love to hear from you.

@DrSharma
Edmonton, AB

Hat tip to the many readers who sent in links to news articles about this announcement.

1 Comment

  1. The concept of only giving “up to” values is pervasive in sales, even for legitimate products. The latest upgrade for this laptop touted an “up to 23%” in battery life, with no average or typical results to be found, and Apple really has nothing to hide when selling its free upgrade.

    Secondly, media outlets are in financial trouble, and will increasingly take the highest bidder for advertising that they legally can. With online advertising targeting, the publisher is largely unaware of the ads being shown to the user.

    The FTC said: “If scammers are willing to cheat consumers, there’s a good chance they’ll cheat you by not paying their bills.”

    I must ask if the FTC knows if this is a typical result or not 😉

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