Some things you can do in 3 minutes: Drink a glass of water. Send a short email. Feed the dog. According to ICON Health and Fitness, in just 3 short minutes a day, consumers could drop pounds, inches, and clothing sizes by using its Pro-Form ab GLIDER line of exercise equipment. As a result of a settlement with the FTC, one thing ICON will be doing in just 3 short minutes is paying a civil penalty of $3 million for deceptively advertising the ab GLIDER in online videos and an infomercial featuring TV personality Elisabeth Hasselbeck. If any of this sounds familiar with regard to ICON, that’s because – in the immortal words of Yogi Berra – it’s “déjà vu all over again.”
ICON’s ads prominently featured testimonials from consumers claiming to have “Lost 27 pounds,” “Lost 30 inches,” or “Lost 15 lbs. Was size 12 now size 4.” According to a video on ICON’s website, consumers got those impressive results in 3 minutes a day. No qualifications, no disclaimers – just references to using the ab GLIDER for “3 minutes a day.” The company underscored that claim by throwing in an accompanying “Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s 3-MINUTE rapid results DVD.” (They sure like their all-caps over at ICON.)
The ab GLIDER infomercial featured similar dramatic testimonials. According to Ms. Hasselbeck, “Recently we asked a handful of men and women just like you to try the ab GLIDER in their homes for just minutes a day.” In addition to the endorsers who appeared in the short video, ICON said another consumer “lost 12 pounds, lost 8 inches in waist.” Again, those claims weren’t accompanied by any prominent caveats or disclosures.
What was really going on? According to the FTC, none of the consumers offering testimonials got their results by using the ab GLIDER for only 3 minutes a day or without engaging in other exercise or dieting. In fact:
- They were part of a program requiring them to use the device for at least 20 minutes a day for no less than 3 sessions each week,
- ICON provided instructor-led workouts for program participants twice a day, 6 days a week, and
- ICON gave them unrestricted access to treadmills, exercise bikes, elliptical machines, and weight training.
What’s more, the consumers dieted throughout the program – a fact ICON knew. In questionnaires administered by the company, subjects revealed they were dieting, exercising much more than 3 minutes a day, and using fitness equipment other than just the ab GLIDER.
Many of the testimonials ran with no limitations and often in close proximity to the “3 minutes a day” claim. In other ads, this fleeting fineprint superscript ran against a background of dynamic graphics: “Achieved after 16 weeks on a controlled diet and one hour of exercise, five days a week in which the ab GLIDER was a key component. Your results may vary.”
The FTC’s lawsuit challenged ICON's claims that consumers would lose pounds, inches, or clothing sizes by using the ab GLIDER without diet or exercise and by using it for just 3 minutes a day. The complaint also charged that ICON misrepresented that the results featured in the testimonials were typical of what people would achieve in those circumstances.
Of course, this isn’t ICON’s first time around the FTC block. The company settled a case in 1997 for deceptive representations about its Pro-form Cross Walk Treadmill. That order required ICON to support weight loss claims with competent and reliable scientific evidence. It also required that endorsements reflect a typical user’s experience or be accompanied by a clear and prominent disclosure. The FTC says ICON’s ads for the ab GLIDER violated those provisions.
What can other marketers learn from the ICON settlement?
Test your testimonials. There’s a reason advertisers use consumers endorsements in ads. They want prospective customers to respond with a “Me, too!” reaction. That’s why endorsements carry with them the implied claim that consumers can expect the same results. If you use testimonials in your ads, the FTC’s revised Endorsement Guides gives you two choices: 1) Have adequate proof to support the claim that the results shown in the ad are typical, or 2) Clearly and conspicuously disclose the generally expected performance in the circumstances shown in the ad. Statements like “Your results may vary” or “Results not typical” won’t do the trick.
Violating an FTC order will cost you. As the $3 million civil penalty in this case demonstrates, flouting an existing settlement comes at a price. The FTC doesn’t respond favorably when consumers are deceived a second time and will take the steps necessary to enforce its order.