“Get High School Skinny!” That was one pitch Georgia-based HealthyLife Sciences made for its Healthe Trim line of diet products. The company’s radio ads, TV commercials, and website promised it all. Just a couple of capsules in the morning would burn fat, boost metabolism, and suppress the appetite, leading to the fast and easy loss of as much as 19 pounds the first week. But according to a proposed FTC settlement, the real result was the fast and easy loss of between $50 and $65 a month for consumers.
The marketing campaign for Healthe Trim was a veritable compendium of what not to do when advertising diet products. Most notably, the company promised weight loss without the need to diet or make any lifestyle changes. The defendants used dramatic consumer testimonials to drive that point home. For example, “Kate” claimed to have lost 54 pounds “by not changing anything other than adding two pills in the morning.” “Ben” said he shed 130 pounds while “doing nothing different.” What’s more, the company claimed the products were “clinically proven to help you lose weight.”
The marketers of Healthe Trim must have been following the headlines. The ads touted ingredients like hoodia gordonii, green tea leaf extract, green coffee bean, raspberry ketone, and garcinia cambogia – substances that have had their moment in the sun as the weight loss ingredient du jour on TV or in beauty magazines.
Healthe Trim ads featured some of the more curious “disclaimers” in the annals of marketing. For example, some testimonials included this fine-print statement: "The weight loss experienced by these individuals actually occurred. We do not have many facts about the circumstances about how this weight loss was achieved, other than the consuming of Healthe Trim, for either us or you to conclude that this should be a generally expected outcome from the use of Healthe Trim . . . ." Huh?
Despite the recurring theme that Healthe Trim would cause weight loss without diet or exercise, some ads included the fine-print statement “Diet and exercise are necessary to lose weight.”
The company’s products were initially available only online, but pretty soon national retailers got into the act. As Healthe Trim became more popular, companies like CVS, GNC, and Walgreens started selling it, too.
The FTC has issued separate proposed settlements with HealthyLife Sciences and former CEO Matt Dwyer, who was featured prominently in the ads. The order against the company bans it from making any of the seven “gut check” claims – common weight loss promises that simply can't be true. In the future, they'll need at least two human clinical studies to support a host of other weight loss representations. Those studies must be randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled, and conducted by qualified people. What’s more, the company must hold onto “all underlying or supporting data and documents generally accepted by experts in weight loss research as relevant to an assessment of such testing.” The order against Mr. Dwyer includes similar provisions, but bans him from the weight loss business for the rest of his life. What about a financial remedy? HealthyLife Sciences is in state insolvency proceedings and Dwyer declared personal bankruptcy. You can file an online comment about the settlements by October 14, 2014.
What can other companies take from the cases?
Steer clear of clearly false claims. Many of the representations challenged in this case are on the “gut check” list of weight loss promises that just can’t be true. The FTC issued Gut Check: A Reference Guide for Media on Spotting False Weight Loss Claims as a way for broadcasters and publishers to identify bogus diet claims, but advertisers shouldn’t make those claims in the first place. (Of course, the universe of deceptive diet promises extends far beyond the seven “gut check” claims and companies need sound science to support any weight loss representation they make expressly or by implication.)
Resist the temptation to jump on the bandwagon. Every so often, an ingredient gets media buzz as the easy answer to weight loss worries. But it’s unwise for marketers to jump on the bandwagon without solid scientific support. And your obligations don’t end there. The next key step: crafting ad claims that accurately reflect what the studies show..
Test your knowledge of false advertising. There's no magic pill to make anyone "high school skinny," but the FTC has a handy crib sheet to help your ads pass the test. Take the Gut Check Quiz to familiarize yourself with clearly bogus diet claims and then share it with your employees. Bookmark the FTC’s Health Claims page for resources to help you comply with the law.