In the second case of its type in recent months, the Federal Trade Commission today announced that Johnson & Collins Research, Inc., of Minneapolis, Minnesota, has agreed to settle allegations over the deceptive advertising of purported weight-loss and bodyshaping products. The challenged ads for the Total Body Reshaping System and the Super Total Body Reshaping System ("the TBR System") appeared in magazines directed at teenage girls. The FTC alleged that the respondents failed to disclose that the TBR System consisted primarily of booklets containing advice on dieting and exercising. The FTC also challenged several weight-loss claims for the TBR System, in particular the allegedly false claim that users will lose weight without consciously dieting.
The proposed settlement would prohibit the respondents from making similar false or unsubstantiated representations 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 products that they consist primarily of booklets or pamphlets.
In June 1995, the FTC announced a settlement involving similar allegations with W L A R Co., of Falls Church, Virginia. The Commission challenged both the weight loss claims directed by W L A R to teens, and the deceptive marketing of booklets as "products." The order in that case was made final on Feb. 21 of this year.
"Consumers spend millions of dollars each year on unproven or downright fraudulent weight loss products and programs," said Jodie Bernstein, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Teenage girls, the target audience of Johnson & Collins's and W L A R's ads, are especially vulnerable to weight loss promotions.
In these cases, the marketers not only made false and unsubstantiated claims about the effectiveness of their 'product,' but obscured the very nature of what they were selling. Instead of getting a pill or potion for rapid and effortless weight loss, as the ads implied, what these girls really purchased was simply familiar advice on dieting and exercise." Bernstein continued: "We could avoid a lot of consumer injury if magazines like those that ran these ads would weed out such clearly deceptive claims before they reach the public."
The FTC complaint detailing the charges against Johnson & Collins and its owner, Gregor von Ehrenfels, cites full-page ads for the TBR System that ran in Teen, Sassy, Seventeen, and YM Young & Modern magazines. The ads included statements such as:
"In as little as 14 days, your entire body could suddenly start to take on a whole new shape! Plus you could be thinner and firmer than ever before. . . . SUPER TBRS is NOT just another diet program," and "The moment you put Super TBRS methods into action, you begin to burn-off excess calories and fatty deposits . . ..”
The FTC alleged that, through these ads, Johnson & Collins and von Ehrenfels falsely represented that purchasers do not have to consciously diet to lose weight. In addition, the FTC alleged that the respondents failed to have substantiation for their representations that the TBR System:
- causes fast and significant weight loss;
- significantly reduces body fat and cellulite;
- causes weight loss, fat reduction, and increased muscle tone in specific, desired areas of the body; and
- burns excess calories, modifies caloric intake, and converts food into energy instead of fat.
Finally, the complaint charges 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 Johnson & Collins and von Ehrenfels 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 prohibitions against unsubstantiated representations regarding the effectiveness of any weight-loss product or program in:
- causing fast and significant weight loss;
- reducing body fat or cellulite;
- causing weight loss, fat reduction, or increased muscle tone in specific, desired areas of the body;
- burning excess calories, modifying caloric intake, or converting food into energy instead of fat; or
- the users' weight, body size or shape, body measurements, or appetite.
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 substantiation 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 provisions 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, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580; 202-326-2222; TTY for the hearing impaired 1-866-653-4261. To find out the latest news as it is announced, call the FTC NewsPhone recording at 202-326-2710. FTC news releases and other materials also are available on the Internet at the FTC’s World Wide Web site at: http://www.ftc.gov
(FTC File No. 952 3478)