W L A R Co., of Falls Church, Virginia, and its owner, Michael K. Craig, have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission allegations that they deceptively advertised five weight-loss and body-shaping booklets in magazine ads directed at teen-aged girls. The FTC alleged that the respondents failed to disclose that the "products" they were selling consisted solely of book- lets containing advice on weight loss. The FTC also challenged the respondents' weight-loss and weight-loss maintenance claims, representations that their customers will lose weight without consciously dieting, and statements about the number of success- ful users. The proposed settlement would prohibit the respon- dents from making similar false or unsubstantiated representa- tions for these booklets or other weight-loss products or programs, and would require them to disclose in future ads making weight-related claims for these or similar booklets that the products consist solely of booklets or pamphlets.
According to Jodie Bernstein, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, this is the latest in a series of recent cases challenging deceptive advertising claims that have appeared in major media. Last month, the Commission co-sponsored an informative conference on advertising pre-screening by the media. According to Ms. Bernstein, "Many media outlets do a good job in screening advertising for deception before it is run and their efforts make a substantial contribution to consumer protection. Some of the advertising the FTC has challenged recently, however, raises questions about whether some media could be doing a better job. This is one of those cases."
The booklets at issue are titled: Swedish 19, Swedish System, BM Program, New Shape and Body Maker. Advertisements challenged in the FTC complaint detailing the charges include full page ads that ran in Teen magazine. The ads attached to the complaint include statements such as, "It doesn't matter whether you need to lose ten, twenty, even forty pounds or more. You can get them off and keep them off for good," and "[w]hen you use the Swedish System, you still get to eat the same foods you've been eating - including those snacks you love so much. It's not a diet...."
The FTC alleged that, through these ads, W L A R and Craig falsely represented that purchasers do not have to consciously diet to lose weight, and that the BM Program, New Shape and Body Maker are new weight-loss discoveries. In addition, the FTC alleged that the respondents failed to substantiate certain representations, including claims that some or all of the products:
- cause fast and easy weight loss;
- control appetite and cause weight loss, and are more effective than other products or programs in doing so;
- cause users to develop a new set of eating habits, thereby reducing calories and resulting in significant and long-term or permanent weight loss.
The FTC also challenged as unsubstantiated the respondents' representations that thousands of girls have successfully lost weight by using the products.
Finally, the complaint charged that the respondents' failure to disclose that the products are simply booklets containing dieting and exercise advice, and that reducing calories and/or increasing exercise is necessary to lose weight, was deceptive in light of the claims made in the ads.
The proposed consent agreement to settle these charges contains provisions designed to prevent the respondents from engaging in similar deceptive marketing in the future. It would require W L A R and Craig to clearly and prominently disclose, when representing that these or similar booklets have any effect on weight or body size, that what they are selling consists solely of a booklet or pamphlet containing information and advice on weight loss. In addition, the settlement contains prohibi- tions against unsubstantiated representations regarding the effectiveness of any weight-loss product or program or the number of successful users. If the respondents represent that any weight-loss product or program has any effect on weight or body size, the settlement would require them to disclose clearly and prominently that weight loss requires dieting, increased exercise, or both (unless the respondents have scientific sub- stantiation to the contrary for the product being advertised). The order also contains a provision excluding from some of the order's requirements certain representations made in promoting the sale of books or other publications.
Finally, the settlement contains various reporting pro- visions that would assist the FTC in monitoring the respondents' compliance.
The Commission vote to accept the proposed consent agreement for public comment was 5-0. The consent will be published in the Federal Register shortly and will be subject to public comment for 60 days, after which the Commission will decide whether to make it final. Comments should be addressed to the FTC, Office of the Secretary, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580.
NOTE: A consent agreement is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute an admission of a law violation. When the Commission issues a consent order on a final basis, it carries the force of law with respect to future actions. Each violation of such an order may result in a civil penalty of $10,000.
The FTC has published a free brochure for consumers titled "The Facts About Weight Loss Products and Programs." The brochure offers tips and lists phrases and terms to watch out for in advertising.
Copies of the brochure, the complaint and the proposed consent agreement are available from the FTC's Public Reference Branch, Room 130, same address as above. (FTC File No. 942 3263)