Some people call it the “Oz Effect” – the bump in consumer demand after a product or ingredient is featured on the The Dr. Oz Show. In a just-announced settlement, the FTC says defendants Lindsey Duncan, Pure Health LLC, and Genesis Today, Inc., took advantage of that phenomenon by deceptively touting the purported weight loss benefits of green coffee bean extract. The complaint recounts how defendant Duncan fueled a diet craze. The story has it all: a national TV appearance, a popular host, claims that people would lose weight without diet or exercise, and a comprehensive marketing campaign designed to take advantage of all of the above. The only thing missing, according to the FTC, was proof the product actually worked.
As the complaint recounts, a Dr. Oz producer contacted Texas-based Lindsey Duncan, who had been on the show before, about an appearance to talk about green coffee bean extract. The lawsuit alleges that up to that point, Duncan had no familiarity with the ingredient. But that didn’t stop a senior member of the defendants’ PR team from responding, “Dr. Lindsey does have knowledge of the Green Coffee Bean. He loves it!” Later that day, the defendants contacted a manufacturer and placed their first order for the stuff.
The FTC says the defendants used the time before the show’s taping to get their marketing ducks in a row. For example, they reached out to retailers like Walmart, telling them Duncan would be appearing on Dr. Oz to talk about clinical trials that purported to prove the stuff really worked. The defendants also bought numerous Google AdWords to steer consumers to their sites.
When the cameras started rolling, Duncan claimed that people who used green coffee bean extract would lose 17 pounds and 16% of their body fat in just 12 weeks, all without diet or exercise. Duncan urged viewers to search for the product online, using phrases his companies had carefully selected to drive search results to their sites.
After the show’s taping, when a Dr. Oz producer asked if there was a brand Duncan recommended, Duncan emailed a colleague, “This is either a set up or manna from the heavens . . . Please get Green Coffee Bean up on our site immediately!!!” Duncan then informed the producer that he “did some research” and that word searches for “green coffee bean” led to a site called purehealth100.com. “This looks like the best and most authentic product that I could find,” Duncan claimed. “The price is fair and they have zero additives.” But there were some facts Duncan didn’t tell the Dr. Oz people: that he and his company, Genesis Today, had created Pure Health and bought the search terms to steer people to that site.
After the show aired, Duncan used his Dr. Oz appearance to fuel the green coffee bean extract craze. According to the complaint, he posted links to the show on websites and used retail point-of-sale displays that trumpeted the product as a “New Health Discovery! As Seen on TV. The Dieter’s Secret Weapon.” On his website, Duncan claimed:
Normally, I don’t recommend “weight loss” supplements, especially weight loss supplements that claim “easy weight loss” or “fast weight loss,” but the Green Coffee Bean has truly amazed me. What has the media and the scientific community so excited about Green Coffee Bean Extract is that people don’t have to do anything different when taking this food supplement, they don’t need to exercise, they don’t need to diet, they just appear to drop pounds!
Duncan also said, “A lot of people are asking me which product I recommend, and my fans know that I love Pure Health products because they always offer the purest of all the superfoods they sell.” One thing the complaint alleges wasn’t so pure was Duncan’s failure to disclosure his connection to Pure Health.
The defendants also paid various “brand ambassadors” to mention the products on TV, radio programs, and blogs – all without disclosing their relationship with the companies. The FTC says that certain online reviews looked like they came from satisfied customers, but really were paid for by the defendants. Thus, the complaint charges that the defendants failed to adequately disclose that people recommending the product – including Duncan – had a material connection to the sellers.
What about those striking weight claims? According to the FTC, the defendants didn’t have substantiation to support that people would lose 17 pounds in 12 weeks and 16% of body fat, without diet or exercise. The complaint also alleges that their claim that a clinical study proved those results was false. (The so-called “study” of green coffee bean extract was so hopelessly flawed that the company behind it was the subject of an earlier FTC law enforcement action, resulting in a $3.5 million settlement. In a separate development, the American authors of the study have since retracted it.)
To settle the charges, the defendants will pay a $9 million judgment. The court order also requires them to substantiate future weight loss claims with at least two well-controlled human clinical tests. For other claims about the health benefits and efficacy of any dietary supplement or drug, they’ll need competent and reliable scientific evidence. In addition, the order requires them to disclose material connections to product endorsers.