While Media Screening of Fraudulent Ads Seems to Be Working, More Work Is Needed,FTC Reports
According to a Federal Trade Commission staff report released today the number of obviously false weight-loss claims in television, radio, and print advertisements for dietary supplements, topical creams, and diet patches appears to have dropped from almost 50 percent in 2001 to 15 percent in 2004.
With the rapid increase in obesity in America, many Americans look to weight-loss ads for products to trim pounds. Industry sources estimate that consumers spend billions of dollars each year on products and services that purport to promote weight loss. Many of these products, however, do not deliver what they promise.
In a 2002 report, the FTC staff had found that nearly half of weight-loss ads surveyed in 2001 made claims that clearly were false. To help stem this tide of deceptive weight-loss advertising, in 2003, the FTC asked the media not to run ads containing obviously false weight-loss claims. To judge the effectiveness of its call for media screening, the FTC staff conducted the non-scientific Weight-Loss Advertising Survey: 2004. Although the decline in deceptive ad claims is significant, the survey results show there are still areas for improvement. The FTC will continue its efforts to encourage the media voluntarily to screen out clearly false weight-loss advertisements.
“Good media screening is good business,” said FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras. “I encourage the media to continue their efforts to identify and reject clearly false weight-loss advertising.”
The survey reviewed the nature and frequency of weight-loss advertising for certain products available over-the-counter running on television and radio or in newspapers and magazines – all media that can screen out ads before running them. In general, the 2004 survey results show a significant decline in clearly false weight-loss product claims in the advertisements surveyed.
In September 2001, the FTC conducted a non-scientific survey of weight-loss ads in selected print, television, and radio media. The FTC released a staff report entitled Weight-Loss Advertising: An Analysis of Current Trends, which analyzed the claims and techniques used in more than 300 weight-loss advertisements that ran throughout all media. The 2001 survey found that nearly half of the ads for dietary supplements, creams, wraps, devices, and patches that appeared in radio, television, or print media contained at least one clearly false claim.
In November 2002, the FTC held a workshop to explore new approaches to reducing deceptive weight-loss advertising. Following the workshop, the FTC issued a staff report, Deception in Weight-Loss Advertising Workshop: Seizing Opportunities and Building Partnerships to Stop Weight-Loss Fraud. The report contained a list of seven claims that are not scientifically feasible for non-prescription weight-loss products. The Commission also announced its “Red Flags” initiative, which, through outreach and business education, encourages the media to reject weight-loss product advertising that contains any of these seven false claims, called “Red Flag” claims.
In 2004, after working with the media on the Red Flag initiative, the FTC staff conducted a new survey, and analyzed ads in broadcast and cable television (including infomercials), radio, magazines, newspapers, supermarket tabloids, and free-standing inserts from February to May 2004. The 2004 report released today provides the results of that survey.
The 2004 Report
The 2004 survey results cover advertisements for certain non-prescription products: dietary supplements, creams, wraps, devices, and patches. The survey results found that 15 percent of the ads reviewed in 2004 made one or more of the clearly false Red Flag claims – a significant drop from the 2001 survey that showed 49 percent of similar ads contained at least one Red Flag claim. In addition, FTC staff compared ads that appeared in the February through May 2004 issues of certain national magazines with ads that appeared in the same magazines in 2001. This comparison showed that while the volume of weight-loss ads increased slightly from 2001, fewer of those ads contained Red Flag claims.
The report shows that:
- Five percent of the ads contained the Red Flag claim that users could lose two pounds or more per week (over four or more weeks) without reducing caloric intake and/or increasing their physical activity. In the 2001 survey, 43 percent of the ads contained such claims.
- Four percent of the ads contained claims that consumers who use the product could lose substantial weight while enjoying unlimited amounts of high calorie foods.
(Weight-Loss Survey Report--04/11/05)
- Four percent of the ads contained claims that weight loss would be permanent (even when the user stops using the product).
- Three percent of the ads contained claims that the weight-loss product would cause substantial weight loss by blocking the absorption of fat or calories.
- Three percent of the ads made claims that users could safely lose more than three pounds per week without clearly conveying the need for medical supervision.
- Four percent of the ads stated that users could lose substantial weight through use of the advertised product that is worn on the body or rubbed into the skin.
- Four percent of the ads stated that the product causes substantial weight loss for all users.
Although the survey gives a positive report card, the FTC staff concludes that there is still work to be done. The report also provides several caveats: neither the 2001 nor the 2004 survey was designed to produce results that can be generalized to all weight-loss advertising; the absence of Red Flag claims does not mean that the advertisements contained no deceptive weight-loss claims at all; and although the results suggests that there has been significant improvement in the occurrence of Red Flag claims since 2001, they do not prove that this improvement is the result of the Red Flags initiative. Nevertheless, the FTC staff believes that report results support the FTC’s continuing to encourage the media to screen out clearly false weight-loss advertisements.
The Commission vote authorizing the issuance of the staff report entitled Weight-Loss Advertising Survey: 2004 was 5-0.
Copies of the staff report entitled Weight-Loss Advertising Survey: 2004 are available from the FTC’s Web site at http://www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC’s Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish (bilingual counselors are available to take complaints), or to get free information on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357), or use the complaint form at http://www.ftc.gov. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
(FTC Matter No. P014510)
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