Federal agency wants more scrutiny of weight-loss ads

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 22, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Think you can lose weight fast by following the advice of TV weight-loss ads?

Don't always believe 'em. They may be misleading, the Federal Trade Commission said.

The FTC wants to revise its guidelines for testimonials and endorsements in ads so that consumers aren't led into thinking that unusual success stories, especially regarding weight loss, are typical results.

David Vladeck, the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection director, told the Senate Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance Subcommittee on Wednesday that these kinds of weight-loss ads were harmful to consumers.

He also said that the agency was having trouble enforcing its existing rules because of a lack of money.

"It's not often clear to viewers that what they're viewing is a sales pitch and not an amazing show about a new breakthrough technology," Vladeck said.

He wanted weight-loss supplement ads to include an average amount of weight that other users of the product lost, but advertisers said that wasn't so simple

To find an average would be impossible, said Jon Congdon, the president of Product Partners, which sells products such as Hip Hop Abs and the 2-Day Fast Formula, which promises a weight loss of up to 7 pounds in two days.

For example, he said, a middle-aged woman who's trying to lose 40 pounds would have different results from a young man who's trying to lose 10 pounds. Weight loss would vary based on diet and exercise, as well.

"We don't even know what the average means in regard to weight loss," he said. "The new regulations would place an undue burden on advertisers trying to meet the demands. If I had a way where I could show an average I would do it, because I think the consumer would find it reasonable."

Congdon added that he was all for bigger, flashier disclaimers, and he took issue only with the "average" requirement.

Dr. Urvashi Rangan, the director of technical policy at the Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, thought that it would be possible to find a weight-loss average.

"If a company is selling millions of dollars' worth of products, the least they can do is let (buyers) know what their expected result could be," she said.

Currently, an advertiser can depict unusual weight-loss stories as long as it puts in a disclaimer that says, "Results not typical." The disclaimers aren't effective, however, and the industry isn't doing a good job of regulating misleading ads, Vladeck said.

"Self-regulation serves a very important function but is no substitute for a fully staffed, able and capable FTC," Vladeck said. Self-regulation "is necessary but not sufficient."

The FTC first proposed amending its guidelines for endorsements and testimonials in November. They haven't been revised since 1980.

Proposed revisions would include: Those who are paid to endorse products must make that clear in the ad, an ad must be able to back up its testimonials' claims and experts must have real expertise.

Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., the chairman of the subcommittee, and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., expressed disgust with misleading ads. The subcommittee has oversight over the FTC.

"These companies preyed on vulnerable patients and put their lives on the line just to make a quick buck," Pryor said of a case in which companies had aired ads claiming to cure cancer.

Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the subcommittee's top Republican, seemed skeptical that more government regulation was the answer, however.

"A balance must remain," he said. "If true fraud or attempts to deceive consumers occur the FTC must step in," he added, with emphasis on the word "true."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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