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More Deceptive Weight Loss Advertising Tactics


The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has been quite aggressive in running after unscrupulous marketers of weight loss and fitness products but in spite of their efforts, they cannot fully protect gullible consumers because every year, more and more products making false or unsubstantiated claims pop up. The situation has been likened to chopping off the snakes on Medusa's head. For every snake that you cut off, two or three more spring up in place.

And if the FTC is having a hard time, you can just imagine our state of affairs here in the Philippines. Have you seen the ads on some of those home shopping channels? Outrageous is the only word to describe some of them.

Being aware of the devious methods used to separate you from your hard earned money is only way to protect yourself.

Last week, I wrote about some ways that before-and-after pictures can be manipulated to deceive consumers of weight loss products. Here are some other deceptive advertising tactics with regards to client testimonials, health expert endorsements, and scientific claims.

Client testimonials.
Testimonials are neither good nor bad. They are simply statements made by clients stating how they think the use of a product affected them.

Testimonials are powerful because they offer the consumer hope that they too will be successful using the product. They are more convincing than just reading about a product's features or scientific results proving the product is effective.

However, there are a couple of things you need to be aware of regarding testimonials. Just because the product worked for the one giving the testimony does not guarantee that it will work for you. In one fat-burner supplement ad, the client testifies that she lost 31 pounds in 28 days but the fine print at the bottom of the ad says, "Results not typical and depend on your diet and training program. Average weight loss expected is eight pounds over eight weeks". A weight loss of one pound a week is a far cry from 1.1 pounds a day.

The person giving the testimonial has, in the majority of cases, been paid. This does not mean that what they are saying is not true but you do need to be aware that the financial compensation they received could influence what they say about the product.

Sometimes, the testimony is an outright lie. A locally produced TV infomercial features a woman claiming to have lost pounds and inches using the product (an exercise video and book). She sounds very convincing except that what she is saying is not true. She had never used the product and was paid to say those lines. How do I know the "inside story" of this infomercial? I personally know the woman involved and she told me her story. Since she works as a part-time commercial model, as far as she was concerned, she was just "acting" in a commercial and getting paid for it. She was shocked when she saw the infomercial and realized that the advertisers portrayed her as a real person (they gave her a different name) who had used the product and was giving her testimony about how well it worked. It makes me wonder, what about the other "testimonials" in the infomercial? Are they also fake?

Health expert endorsements.
Last year, while attending an international fitness convention, I was told that to appear on an infomercial meant the kiss of death for credible health and fitness professionals because so many infomercials employ deceptive methods to sell their products. Appearing on an infomercial meant that you had sold out or that your career was doing so badly you were desperate to make money at the expense of your reputation.

Here are some of the misleading practices concerning the use of health expert endorsements. The most blatantly false practice is to use an actor to pass him or her off to the public as an expert. Another locally produced infomercial uses an American expatriate in a white coat with a stethoscope over his shoulder to make the audience believe he is a scientist who has done research on the product (an electronic device). The man is a commercial model and is married to someone I know. He is definitely not a scientist. He was just an actor out to make some part-time money. It's the makers of the infomercial who should be ashamed of themselves for trying to deceive the public.

Here is another example from a U.S. based commercial. The hosts of the Fat Trapper infomercial (a chitosan-based product that supposedly absorbs the fat you eat) are former baseball player Steve Garvey and nutritionist Kendall Carson. In the commercial, the enthusiastic duo claim that by using Fat Trapper, consumers can eat whatever they want and still lose weight without dieting and exercising. However, in the world of weight loss advertising, what you see is not always what you get. It turns out that Kendall Carson is actually Lark Kendall, an actress who was paid to portray a nutritionist.

Last year, she, Garvey and Enforma (the makers of Fat Trapper and Exercise in a Bottle) were sued by the FTC for making false claims. Kendall settled out of court and agreed to give back to customers the fee she was paid for appearing in the commercial. Enforma also settled with the FTC and has agreed to pay back $10 million to its customers as a penalty for deceiving them. Garvey and the FTC are still battling it out in court.

Another deceptive practice is to take the words of experts out of context. A few years ago, I was in the audience listening to a lecture by Dr. Robert Girandola of the Southern California University when someone asked him why the Oxycise infomercial (which claims that special breathing exercises will make you thin) quotes him as endorsing the product. He said that he was taken out of context and they made it appear that doing Oxycise was better than exercising on a stationary bike.

Dr. Julio Garcia, a Las Vegas plastic surgeon who appeared in the AbTronic infomercial (electronic muscle stimulation belt), told ABC News that the commercial took some of his words out of context to make it appear that using the machine alone will make a person lose weight, lose inches and gain muscle definition

Scientific studies.
Many health, fitness and nutritional products couch their ads in scientific jargon and claim to have the backing of scientific research. They may or may not be doing this responsibly.

Research can be used inappropriately when it is taken out of context or exaggerated conclusions are made. The company capitalizes on a small half-truth about the research and applies it big-time to their product.

For example, research done on electronic muscle stimulation by Dr. Gad Alon of the University of Maryland was used by the AbTronic infomercial to support their claims. Alon told Good Morning America's consumer correspondent Greg Hunter that the AbTronic commercials took his findings out of context. Alon further told NBC News that the AbTronic company had never contacted him, that the research comes from work done in the mid-80s and that what AbTronic says in the infomercial has nothing to do with studies he or the university conducted.

Here's another example. One of the studies done by Dr. Jeffrey Armstrong of the University of Eastern Michigan is used in Xenadrine (a fat-burner) ads as proof that the product works. The ads claim that the participants in Armstrong's study who took Xenadrine gained 61 percent more lean body mass and lost 759 percent more weight and 524 percent more fat than those who took a placebo.

However, according to Armstrong, who was interviewed by Penny Crabtree of The San Diego Union-Tribune, "Cytodyne's (the company that makes Xenadrine) math is technically accurate but dishonest".

Armstrong said that "percentages were used to inflate what were in many cases differences of no or little statistical importance". The results in terms of absolute pounds show that those who took Xenadrine lost an average of 4.5 pounds during the six-week study or less than half a pound each week when compared with those who took a placebo.
Armstrong told Crabtree, "Any dietary supplement company is more concerned about being able to use (studies) for marketing than anything else. Very few are concerned with whether it actually works."
Tommy Boone, editor-in-chief of The Journal of Exercise Physiology (the scientific journal where the study in question was first published in May 2001), was incensed at the way Armstrong's research was misrepresented by Cytodyne. In his May 2002 article, "Exercise Physiology Quackery and Consumer Fraud", he wrote that if you want to "understand the difference between professional and unprofessional, between ethical and unethical, between quackery and honesty, and simply between right and wrong" then all you have to do is compare the Xenadrine ads with the original study.

"The advertisement is nothing more than consumer fraud…. Any respectable researcher will understand the fraud and quackery demonstrated by those responsible for the marketing piece from Cytodyne Technologies".

Common sense.
There is such a thing as ''common sense''. It's free and everyone has an unlimited supply. Use your head. If a weight loss or muscle gaining ad sounds ''too good to be true'', it probably is. If it were that easy to lose weight or gain muscle, everyone would be walking around with slim and defined bodies.

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