Claims That Are Too Good to Be True: Watching for the Red Flags in Advertising

Trading on false hopes and empty promises, some weight-loss programs offer miraculous results. Rub the product on your skin and watch the fat melt away. Lose weight while you sleep. Take a supplement, then eat all you want and still lose weight.
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Trading on false hopes and empty promises, some weight-loss programs offer miraculous results. Rub the product on your skin and watch the fat melt away. Lose weight while you sleep. Take a supplement, then eat all you want and still lose weight.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Trading on false hopes and empty promises, some weight-loss programs offer miraculous results. Rub the product on your skin and watch the fat melt away. Lose weight while you sleep. Take a supplement, then eat all you want and still lose weight.

These claims and others like them are more of a risk to people’s health than they realize. During the past 20 years, obesity among adults has risen significantly in the United States. The latest data from the National Center for Health Statistics show that 30 percent of U.S. adults 20 years of age and older - more than 60 million people - are obese.

Researchers from the Rand Corporation who compared the effects of poverty, smoking, heavy drinking and obesity discovered that obesity poses the most serious health risks. It is linked to a host of problems, including diabetes, hypertension, asthma, heart disease and cancer.

Consumers spend about $38 billion annually on weight loss products. People desperate to lose weight are especially vulnerable to advertisements claiming easy, quick results. Topping the list of the 17th Annual Slim Choice Awards for 2005, sponsored by Healthy Weight Network to identify the year’s worst diets, were Jana Skinny Water, which claimed to cut the appetite while burning fat, and the “Shape Up” pills touted by Dr. Phil McGraw, television’s no-nonsense psychologist who claimed the pills contained “scientifically researched levels of ingredients.”

Under a recent Federal Trade Commission investigation, the company that made the Shape Up supplements, shakes, bars and multivitamins - CSA Nutraceuticals - has stopped production.

Not only can such products lighten the wallets of consumers, they can also shorten their lives. Every year, people desperate to be thin attempt hazardous weight loss regimens, which can lead to eating disorders, malnutrition, and even injury and death.

As a member of the National Advertising Review Board, Jan LeBlanc Wicks helps protect consumers by setting standards of truth and accuracy for national advertisers. While reviewing claims by weight loss and diet programs, she found that deceptive infomercials represented 25 percent of all weight loss advertising cases prosecuted by the Federal Trade Commission since 1984.

Wicks, an associate professor in the department of journalism in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, has written an article, “Self-Regulation and Weight Loss Advertising: Staying Informed,” which is to appear in the upcoming NARB Quarterly, a newsletter that keeps board members, supporters and national advertisers better informed about the findings of the self-regulatory system.

In the article, Wicks examines some grossly exaggerated or unsubstantiated performance claims reported by the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC found that from 2002 to 2005, the number of obviously false weight loss claims appearing in print and broadcast had dropped significantly. The reason: media outlets responded to the FTC’s call and refused to run ads with clearly bogus claims.

Wicks lists various sources of information in her article that may be useful to concerned consumers, advertisers, broadcasters and publishers.

One is the “Red Flag” report issued by the FTC, which notes that a diet plan claim is too good to be true if it says the product

  • will cause weight loss of two pounds or more a week for a month or more without dieting or exercise.
  • will cause substantial weight loss no matter what or how much the consumer eats.
  • will cause permanent weight loss even when the consumer stops using the product.
  • will block the absorption of fat or calories to enable consumers to lose substantial weight.
  • will cause substantial weight loss for all users.
  • will cause substantial weight loss by wearing the product on the body or rubbing it into the skin.

The report is available at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/buspubs/redflag.pdf.

“Certainly it can be difficult to stay abreast of the numerous types of false claims used in weight-loss advertising,” Wicks said. “And new misleading claims and techniques may arise in the future. To stay informed, use the search function on the FTC’s home page (http://www.ftc.gov/) and enter the words 'weight loss advertising’ to locate new reports or weight-loss cases.”

Wicks finds that her service on the board provides a first-hand look at the focus of her research: advertising self-regulation.

“I find this service very gratifying because I can help to improve the accuracy of future advertising,” Wicks said. “Many advertisers comply with NARB recommendations so potentially misleading advertisements are removed from the media more quickly.”

In 2002, the Federal Trade Commission prosecuted Enforma for misleading weight-loss claims that consumers could take a pill, eat what they wanted and lose weight. The Enforma case alone resulted in a $10 million fine to repay consumers who purchased the Fat Trapper and Exercise in a Bottle products based on false infomercial claims.

“With Enforma, you can eat what you want and never, ever, ever have to diet again,” the infomercial proclaimed. “It will help you lost weight, burn more calories and even lower cholesterol by simply taking a pill. You're able to eat everything you want to eat.”

Wicks has found that doctors or purported experts are often used to support research claims about weight loss. These experts lend credence to the scientific explanations of how some products work and sometimes claim to have conducted the years of research necessary to develop the products they’re touting.

Wicks recommends that future public information campaigns or public service announcements should point out to consumers that such experts often are used to present “too good to be true” scientific claims. She also suggests that these announcements should feature information to help consumers identify bogus claims.

Consumers unaware of realistic weight loss goals could be tempted by advertisements claiming dramatic loss in a short time.

“FTC attorney Richard Cleland points out that the problems are not hard to spot,” Wicks said. “For example, to lose 49 pounds in 29 days would require a net calorie reduction of 171,500 calories. A person consuming no calories and burning 2,500 calories a day for 29 days would have a net calorie deficit of only 72,500, or 21 pounds. Thus, at face value, such a claim cannot be true.”

A public service advertisement could stress that a goal of losing one pound a week is more realistic and that people could lose 49 pounds in a year or more, but never in a month.

Wicks cautions that with the rising obesity levels in the U.S., advertisers must take more responsibility for substantiating product or program claims.

“Extra care is needed when the health of consumers is involved,” she said. “The FTC’s recent finding that obviously false weight-loss claims are declining suggests concerned advertisers and media executives are making important contributions to improving the accuracy of advertising.”

A great deal of consumer information is available online and through objective sources such as Consumer Reports. Wicks’ standing advice regarding ad claims is “If in doubt, check them out.”

The National Advertising Review Board is made up of 70 professionals from three different fields: national advertisers (40 members), advertising agencies (20 members) and public members (10). Members serve for two years and are eligible for an additional two-year appointment. Wicks is one of the 10 public members nationwide.

For more information about the National Advertising Review Board, go to http://www.narbreview.org/about/index.asp


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