Media Trim Some False Claims

The Federal Trade Commission has finally made it official: The media appear to be doing a better job of weeding out snake-oil salesmen.

As B&C reported back in February, a new FTC study on weight-loss advertising found that the number of such ads containing facially false claims has dropped from over 50% in 2001 to 15% in 2004.

In 2003, the FTC asked the media to better screen out obviously bogus claims--i.e. diet without exercise, sleep the pounds away. It held a seminar with industry representatives and issued a red flag list of seven obviously false claims-then folllowed up with the 2004 study to gauge the results.

It even created its own bogus weigh-loss web site ( to help educated consumers.

The study seemed to need about as many disclaimers as some diet ads, however.

It was confined to ads for products specifically targeted in the "red flag" initiative--"nonprescription drugs, dietary supplements, diet patches, creams, wraps, and devices." Those are some major offenders, but the study did not include any ads for diets, prescription drugs, exercise equipment, meal replacements (breakfast shakes or bars), low-calorie foods, liposuction, or hypnosis.

Just because the ads did not claim any of the seven specific red flag claims did not mean they made no bogus weight-loss claims, the FTC pointed out.

In addition, TV was a relatively small portion of the survey--28 ads and only three long-form infomercials, so extrapolating it to a general decline in deceptive TV weight-loss claims is problematic at best, a point the FTC also made, saying "the decline in Red flag claims does not necessarily imply a decline in deceptive weight-loss claims in general."

Because the 2001 study covered more categories, it was impossible to make some comparisons between the two studies, and the FTC pointed out that it could not say whether its crackdown had any causal connection to the resulting decrease in red-flagged claims.

Still, “We think the media should be proud,” FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras said in February when she revealed the decline in claims. “This is a great example of our power when we partner with industry.”

“Good media screening is good business,” she said this week in announcing the reports official release. “I encourage the media to continue their efforts to identify and reject clearly false weight-loss advertising.”

Majoras has said she hopes to roll out similar consumer-protection partnerships with media companies regarding marketing to kids and TV product placement.

John Eggerton

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.