The Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday called on media companies to more carefully scrutinize weight-loss product ads, while ordering $34 million in deceptive ad settlements against makers of food additives, skin creams and dietary supplements.
"Operation Failed Resolution," which comes as the diet season hits full stride, specifically targeted four companies that the agency accused of peddling products using flawed studies and insufficient scientific evidence. Additionally, the agency said it was sending letters to 75 publishers, broadcasters, media groups and trade associations to "update them on how to spot bogus claims in weight loss ads and alert them to new resources on our web site to help them do that," Jessica Rich, director of the FTC's bureau of consumer protection, said at a news conference.
The program includes an online tutorial called "Gut Check" that describes seven weight-loss claims that "can't be true and should prompt … a second look to make sure publishers are not running advertisements with claims known to be false." They include any ad that claims a product "causes weight loss of two pounds or more a week for a month or more without dieting or exercise."
"Many of the ads challenged in today's cases ran in trusted, nationally-known publications and on well-known, reputable television outlets," Ms. Rich said. "Consumers are more likely to believe claims promoted in their favorite magazines or on their favorite stations."
Officials noted that the FTC has the authority to take action against media outlets that run deceptive ad claims for diet and health products. But the officials added that the agency does not expect to use that power because it is anticipating voluntary cooperation.
Mary Berner, president and CEO of MPA - The Association of Magazine Media, said in an email that the "gut check" guide closely mirrors similar guidelines the FTC released in 2003, then called "red flag" guidance. "We informed our members about the guidance in 2003, and plan to apprise them of this update," she said.
"At the same time," she continued, "we would note that the publishing industry has substantial constitutional, liability and economic concerns about the commission's assertion that publishers can -- and should -- screen all weight loss advertisements for veracity."
The largest settlement announced Tuesday was with California-based Sensa Products, which sells a powdered food additive that the FTC said was "deceptively advertised" as "making users feel full faster, so they eat less and lose weight, without dieting, and without changing their exercise regime."
The order imposed a $46.5 million judgment against the company and its parent, Sensa Inc., but required a $26.5 million payment for consumer refunds with the remaining amount suspended "due to an inability to pay." Ads for the product were "ubiquitous," Ms. Rich said, running in outlets such as Parade Magazine and HSN.
The FTC alleged that Sensa also failed to disclose that some consumers were compensated for their endorsements, which included payments of $1,000 or $5,000 and trips to Los Angeles. The charges also named Sensa creator Dr. Alan Hirsch, alleging he "gave expert endorsements that were not supported by scientific evidence."
Charges were also issued against L'Occitane, the maker of skin creams including Almond Beautiful Shape, whose ads have claimed consumers can "trim 1.3 inches in just 4 weeks," according to the FTC. The company agreed to pay $450,000 in consumer redress, the FTC stated.
Also cited was HCG Diet Direct, which according to the FTC marketed "an unproven human hormone that has been touted by hucksters for more than half a century as a weight-loss treatment." The order imposed a $3.2 million judgement that was suspended based on an inability to pay.
The FTC also announced a partial settlement with LeanSpa that the FTC alleges "deceptively promoted acai berry and 'colon cleanse' weight-loss supplements through fake news websites." The FTC action requires LeanSpa principal Boris Mizhen and three companies he controls to "surrender cash, real estate and personal property totaling approximately $7 million." The agency stated that litigation will continue against defendants that acted as LeanSpa's affiliate network and two other relief defendants.
Contributing: Michael Sebastian