Most Advertisements for Diet Products and Services Contain False, Misleading Claims, FTC Says
More than half of all advertisements for weight loss products or services contain "false statements or statements that were very likely to be false," according to a Federal Trade Commission report released yesterday, the Washington Post reports (Squires, Washington Post, 9/18). Researchers from the FTC and the Partnership for Healthy Weight Management reviewed 300 weight-loss advertisements, which ran mostly in the first six months of 2001 in direct mail, e-mail, the Internet, magazines, newspapers, radio and television (Ho, AP/Nando Times, 9/18). The Post reports that the report reviewed ads from "well-known" programs, including the Atkins Diet, Jenny Craig, LA Weight Loss Centers and Richard Simmons, as well as "relatively obscure" programs such as Apple Cider Vinegar Capsules and Synadrene-HCL. According to the report, at least 40% of the ads made at least one "false representation," such as claiming a person can consume as much food as they desire and "still lose weight" (Washington Post, 9/18). Fifty-five percent of the ads made unsubstantiated claims (Dezember, Wall Street Journal, 9/18). The report also found that the number of false or misleading claims in weight-loss advertisements "appears to have increased dramatically" from 1992 to 2002 (Washington Post, 9/18). Common exaggerated claims include testimonials or before-and-after photos, claims of "rapid weight loss" and claims that weight loss will come without diet or exercise (Hellmich, USA Today, 9/18). With approximately 70 million Americans attempting to lose weight or to stop gaining weight, false advertising and misleading claims lead to "waste[d] money" and put some consumers at risk, the report states (Washington Post, 9/18). "The only thing these quick-fix things leave lighter are consumers' wallets," FTC Chair Timothy Muris said (Reuters/Chicago Tribune, 9/18).
The FTC has taken legal action against 81 weight-loss advertisers over the past decade, including 10 since 2000, but the injunctions "did little" to keep advertisers from making false or misleading claims in ads, the Journal reports. FTC officials said they will begin requesting that broadcasters, the print media and other media outlets "do a better job policing marketers" for false or unsubstantiated claims. "[E]ditors and publishers ought to ... recognize [these] claims as problematic," J. Howard Beales, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer , said (Wall Street Journal, 9/18). But John Craft, professor of journalism at Arizona State University, said that while the media has an "ethical responsibility" to screen for false ads, finding all of them may be difficult. "You can't really operate a scientific laboratory to look into everything," he said (Wall Street Journal, 9/18). Jeffrey Seglin, professor of publishing and writing at Emerson College, added that it appears as if "the FTC is asking publishers and broadcasters to do the FTC's job" (USA Today, 9/18). FTC officials said they will hold a public meeting in Washington Nov. 19 for public health officials, advertising executives and others to discuss how to screen for false weight-loss advertisements. Muris said that while "laws against fraudulent advertising should be sufficient to combat outrageous claims," additional rules "may be needed to help [the media] distinguish between false and legitimate ads," the Journal reports (Wall Street Journal, 9/18). The FTC report is available online. Note: You must have Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the report. The following broadcast news programs reported on the report:
- ABCNews' "World News Tonight:" A story about the report is available online (Stark, "World News Tonight," ABCNews, 9/17).
- CBS' "Evening News:" Coverage of the report is available online (Attkisson, "CBS Evening News," CBS, 9/17).
- NBC's "Nightly News:" NBC's coverage is available online (Hager, "Nightly News," NBC, 9/17).
- MPR's "Marketplace:" A transcript and audio of the "Marketplace" story on the report are available online (Scott, "Marketplace," MPR, 9/17).
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