FTC Launches Campaign against Deceptive Weight-Loss Ads

Washington, D.C.—A new campaign to fight deceptive weight-loss advertisements in the media was announced at a press conference held by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on January 7. 

Jessica Rich, director of the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection, explained the reasons for and mission of Operation Failed Resolution, the latest nation-wide launch to “protect consumers from deceptive weight-loss and body-slimming claims.” “Operation Failed Resolution,” named for the many consumers who make losing weight their New Year’s resolution, Rich says, hopes to fight the implausible claims made by “opportunistic marketers” that not only cost consumers millions of dollars, but also postpone their efforts to improve their diet and exercise, habits which can “actually make a difference.”

FTC has taken action against four companies whose weight-loss or body-slimming products have been advertised using false or unsubstantiated claims. Sensa Products LLC, according to FTC, deceptively advertised that its product Sensa, a powdered food additive, would make people feel fuller faster and thus eat less and lose weight without dieting or exercising. The studies cited were conducted were, according to Rich, “fatally flawed;” two of the studies were conducted by the part-owner of Sensa, Alan Hirsch, and one was found to be based on “fabricated data.” Also, the company failed to disclose that some consumers were compensated $1,000–$5,000 for their endorsements. Recorded as the second biggest advertising settlement in FTC history, Sensa Products LLC is required to pay $26.5 million to its consumers.

Another company required to reimburse its customers due to its misleading claims is L’Occitane, whose skin creams Almond Beautiful Shape and Almond Shaping Delight were marketed as “cellulite fighters” that could “trim 1.3 inches in just four weeks.” According to Rich, “The two studies that L’Occitane relied on to support its claimed were both flawed. Neither one was placebo-controlled or blinded.” She also noted that the company exaggerated the studies’ results.

HCG Diet Direct, which advertised that its homeopathic hormone drops would cause customers to “lose seven pounds in seven days,” failed to provide any studies to back its claims. In addition, the company recommended an unsafe diet of 500 calories a day, which Rich says “shouldn’t be undertaken without medical supervision.” Consumers, who each paid $200 for a 40-day supply of the drops, will be reimbursed a court-ordered total of $3.2 million by HCG Diet Direct.

Last, LeanSpa, LLC is charged with promoting “colon-cleanse” and acai berry weight-loss supplements through fake news Web sites; its principal, Boris Mizhen, must surrender $7 million through a settlement. 

Operation Failed Resolution involves two other methods of protection against deceptive weight-loss advertisements. “Consumers are more likely to believe claims promoted in their favorite magazines or their favorite stations,” says Rich, so she believes the media must be a first line of defense. To help, FTC has introduced Gut Check, an online tutorial targeted towards the media to teach them how to spot and reject deceptive weight loss ads.  In addition, FTC has sent 75 letters to publishers, broadcasters, media groups and trade associations to update them on “how to spot bogus claims” and to point them to new, informative resources. The goal, Rich says, is to have the media itself voluntarily turn down ads that do not have legitimate claims.

Rich, who believes consumer education is critical, also mentioned an FTC Web site, www.wemarket4u.net/fatfoe, which advertises a fake weight-loss product called FatFoe and mimics many of the unsubstantiated and deceptive claims made by companies like Sensa Products LLC. Though the front page of the site advertizes FatFoe as “Every Dieters Dream,” clicking anywhere on the site leads the reader to a page that debunks weight-loss claims such as, “You can lose weight without diet or exercise.”

“We want consumers to discover this site when they’re searching for weight-loss solutions and to learn to recognize the telltale signs of a rip-off,” Rich says. The site also includes a link to information on the FTC Web site about proper diet and fitness.

Steve Mister, president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, voiced the Council’s support of Operation Failed Resolution, saying that it is a good reminder to consumers that “if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Mister reminds consumers that though there are beneficial weight management supplements on the market, “consumers should be wary of products that promise to make weight-loss easy.”


Published in WholeFoods Magazine, February 2014 (online 1/8/14)