FTC Report on Weight-Loss Advertising
The staff of the Federal Trade Commission today released a “Report on Weight-Loss Advertising: An Analysis of Current Trends.” The report concludes that false or misleading claims, such as exaggerated weight loss without diet or exercise, are widespread in ads for weight-loss products, and appear to have increased over the last decade.
Many marketers, the report states, use false claims, misleading consumer testimonials, and deceptive before-and-after photos to market their products. According to the report, nearly 40 percent of the ads in the study, including ads that appeared in mainstream, national publications, made at least one representation that is almost certainly false and 55 percent of the ads made at least one representation that is very likely to be false. Often ads promised weight-loss results beyond what is possible. Nearly half of the ads claimed that the users could lose weight without diet and exercise. In one ad, for example, the headline proclaimed: “LOSE UP TO TWO POUNDS DAILY WITHOUT DIET OR EXERCISE!” Other ads cited rapid, prolonged weight-loss claims – such as claims that consumers can lose 8 to 10 pounds per week over an extended period of time.
“We have known for some time now that there is a serious problem with weight-loss product advertising. This report demonstrates the extent of that problem,” said FTC Chairman Timothy J. Muris. “Reputable marketers continue to take care to avoid false and misleading claims, but it appears that too many unscrupulous marketers are making false claims promising dramatic and effortless weight loss to sell their products. It is not fair to consumers; it is not fair to legitimate businesses, it is illegal, and it will not be tolerated.”
“There is no such thing as a miracle pill for weight loss,” Surgeon General Richard Carmona said. “The surest and safest way to weight loss and healthier living is by combining healthful eating and exercising. First eat healthfully – cut fats, eat at least five servings of fruit a day, and cut down on the amount of alcohol you drink. Next, get some physical actvity in yor day. Walking just 30 minutes a day, five days a week can reduce weight, and make you feel better.”
According to the report, a comparison of current ads to ads that ran in 1992 suggests that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of weight-loss products and the amount of deceptive weight-loss advertising, during the last decade. The report noted two major trends: 1) a shift away from weight-loss products advertised as “low-calorie meal-replacements” in 1992 to pills and other products that commonly claimed to work without diet or exercise in 2001; and 2) that although ads from both 1992 and 2001 contain deceptive or false claims, the recent ads were much more likely to make specific misleading performance promises.
Since 1990, the Commission has filed 93 cases challenging false and misleading weight-loss claims involving over-the-counter drugs, dietary supplements, commercial weight-loss centers, weight-loss devices and exercise equipment. Despite the unprecedented level of FTC enforcement over the last decade though, misleading and deceptive ads continue to saturate the market.
According to health and nutrition experts, many of the weight-loss products and programs most heavily advertised are either unproven or unsafe, and frustrate efforts to promote healthy weight-loss efforts by promising unrealistic results.
“As health professionals, we are concerned about the epidemic of obesity and are equally concerned about false and misleading claims in advertising of weight-loss products and services,” said George L. Blackburn, M.D., PhD, chair in nutrition medicine at Harvard Medical School and a member of the PHWM. “Many promise immediate success without the need to reduce caloric intake or increase physical activity. The use of deceptive, false, or misleading claims in weight loss advertising is rampant and potentially dangerous. Many supplements, in particular, are of unproven value or have been linked to serious health risks.”
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