FTC Updates Media Guidelines on Deceptive Diet Ads

The Federal Trade Commission Tuesday announced settlements with four diet product marketers for alleged false and deceptive advertising that will see $34 million returned to consumers, and at the same time released new media guidelines, an online tutorial tabbed "Gut Check," for helping media outlets spot and reject ads with facially false diet claims, something the FTC has been urging them to do since at least 2003.

But the FTC isn't waiting for media outlets to find the new guidelines. According to an FCC official, it is sending letters to 75 media outlets, trade associations and others with info on how to spot bogus claims and let those outlets know about the FTC resources available.

"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," wrote Jessica Rich, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

While the FTC has the power to go after TV stations or cable outlets for airing obviously false claims, an FTC official said Tuesday the letters were not meant to be a shot across the bow. The FTC has no plans to pursue media outlets, but instead wants to continue to work with them to identify and reject ads with obviously bogus claims.

"Under the act we do have the authority to take action against media outlets," the official said," but that is not something the commission has done or plans to do." The official said the guidelines are voluntary and it has no reason to think it won't get cooperation from the media.

FTC Officials announced that as part of "Operation Failed Resolution" (as in New Year's Resolution to lose weight), it had settled with Sensa (the "sprinkle, eat and lose weight" product) for $26.5 million, and three other marketers that it said made "misleading claims for products promoting easy weight loss and slimmer bodies."

The companies admitted no liability, but agreed to stop making the claims, which included in TV and online ads. To check out all the settlements, go here.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.