Time for a gut check?
Like the swallows returning to Capistrano and the umpire yelling “Play ball!” on Opening Day, there’s another inevitable harbinger of spring: ads for bogus products promising easy weight loss just in time for bathing suit season. But this year, media outlets have a new tool for spotting false claims before they’re published or aired – and before consumers risk their money (and maybe even their health) on a worthless pill, potion, belt, cream, or whatever. If you or your clients run ads for weight loss products, it’s time for a gut check.
Updating its advice to broadcasters and publishers, the FTC has issued Gut Check: A Reference Guide for Media on Spotting False Weight Loss Claims. Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all way to spot every deceptive diet promise. But after consulting with scientists, the FTC has compiled a list of seven representations that simply can’t be true for over-the-counter products like weight loss pills, dietary supplements, herbal remedies, patches, creams, wraps, etc. We call them “gut check” claims and we hope media outlets will think twice before running ads that say (or imply) that 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; or
- causes substantial weight loss by wearing a product on the body or rubbing it into the skin.
Some brazen fraudsters will attempt to run a “gut check” claim verbatim. But subtler scammers may try to sneak one past you by using synonyms or ineffective limiting phrases. For example, if they’re too cagy to flat-out claim their product will cause people to lose weight without diet or exercise, they’ll get clever with wordsmithing and say things like “helps people lose up to 10 pounds a week . . .” But the result is the same: The only place people lose is in the wallet.
A word about consumer endorsements. Glowing testimonials from supposedly satisfied customers are a regular feature in weight loss ads. You’ve seen them: “J.S. blasted off 36 pounds in just 1 month!” or “Chris M. dropped 4 sizes in 4 weeks!” Too often, marketers cherry-pick their best case – or even make up phony endorsements – to deceptively suggest others will get the same result. But the law is clear. If companies use endorsements in their ads, they have two choices: Either the results in the ad must be typical of what consumers can expect to achieve or the ad must clearly and conspicuously disclose what the typical results are.
Disclosures in footnotes or fleeting superscripts, buried in dense blocks of text, or hidden behind vague hyperlinks aren’t likely to meet the “clear and conspicuous” standard. It’s also not enough to say “results not typical” or “your results will vary.” In contrast, effective disclosures stand out in an ad. They grab your attention. The FTC doesn’t mandate specific fonts or type sizes – it depends on the ad – but in general, disclosures should be:
- close to the claims they relate to
- in an easy-to-read font at least as large as the font the advertiser uses to convey the claim;
- in a shade that stands out against the background;
- for video ads, on the screen long enough to be noticed, read, and understood;
- for video or radio ads, spoken at a cadence that’s easy for consumers to follow; and
- in words consumers will understand.
Although the seven “gut check” claims apply just to over-the-counter pills, supplements, creams, etc., the rules about endorsements apply across the board, including all weight loss products, programs, and services. If an ad features endorsers making claims that aren’t likely to be typical – but there’s no disclosure of typical results or the disclosure isn’t clear and conspicuous – ask the advertiser to go back to the drawing board.
The best defense against diet deception is a well-developed falsity detector. Ready to test yours against the kind of questionable claims that may cross your desk? Take the FTC’s Gut Check Quiz to see if you can spot a weight loss scam.