Editorial: Blocking the Biggest Losers

The Federal Trade Commission is providing broadcast and cable outlets with new guidance on how to spot and avoid bogus weight-loss claims. Those are the ones that prey on an increasingly plump citizenry by offering apparently effortless ways to shed those added pounds.

Media outlets have done a pretty good job so far of weeding out deceptive ads, said one FTC official, but a refresher course couldn’t hurt.

After announcing four settlements with diet product marketers over allegedly false and deceptive claims totaling $34 million in money to be returned to consumers, the FTC said last week it was sending letters to TV outlets—TV station group owners, national networks, trade associations and others—offering guidance on vetting those ads.

The commission made clear it was not looking to go after media outlets for deceptive advertising, though it has the power to do so. Instead, it said it wanted to continue to partner with the media to better screen out bogus advertising. It pointed out that ads appearing on trusted TV outlets made it more likely consumers would fall for the scams.

To put an exclamation point on the need to better self-police the airwaves, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) planned to launch an investigation into deceptive advertising. McCaskill did her own urging of broadcasters to follow the FTC’s new “gut check” guidelines (the commission, apparently, never saw a weight-loss pun it didn’t like).

“The most effective front-line defense [against deceptive weight-loss ads] is when media outlets have an effective in-house clearance program that screens out clearly deceptive diet ads,” the FTC said, adding, “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.”

We advise every broadcast and cable advertising executive to check out the tutorial at broadcastingcable.com/Jan13.

Also, it pays to be on the lookout for those “lose weight without diet or exercise” or “sprinkle this magic powder on cheesy fries” claims that are obviously too good to be true. One FTC staffer who worked on the “gut check” tutorial said the major update to the advisory was that if there are testimonials, there should also be clear and conspicuous information on what typical results of the product should be.

The FTC also listed seven claims it says should raise immediate red flags, or “gut checks” as it now wants to call them; one should be immediately wary if, according to the ads, a product says it:

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 the 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.

Media outlets are the last line of defense, and the lure of big ad dollars should not prevent them from going on a strict no-bogus-ad-claims diet.