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FTC Sees Diet-Ad Improvement

TV stations and cable outlets are improving their screening of facially false diet claims.

That is the conclusion of a preliminary look at the Federal Trade Commission's year-long study of compliance with its new "red flag" policy for ads that pitch diet pills, wraps, creams and other assorted notions with false or unsupported claims.

When its new crackdown on diet scams was announced in December 2003, the commission provided the media with a primer on its warning signs (red flags) for fraud and asked them to better screen out the ads before they reached the stage of an FTC suit. The commission also promised to monitor their progress.

"From the fact that we released a half dozen cases in November in our "red flag" sweep ["Operation Big, Fat Lie"], [compliance] wasn't perfect, but it looks as if we are headed in the right direction," says Rich Cleland, assistant director, division of advertising practices, for the FTC. That conclusion comes from looking at the data and talking to media outlets, he says.

Look for the FTC to release its report card on media compliance in late January or early February.

The problem was voluntary, but TV stations and cable networks have received warning letters from the FTC, and aren't exempt from liability. Still, Cleland doesn't see the media being targeted anytime soon. "I don't know whether it makes much sense to pound our chest and make threats," he says. "We are not at that point yet."

But he adds "I haven't heard anyone rule out any options. He also says that, down the line, if compliance doesn't conitnue to umprove, other outlets that have passed on that revenue in order to be good actors may be asking the FTC to revisit that enforcement strategy.