Michael Pashby, exec VP-general manager of the Magazine Publishers of America, told the FTC at a hearing last week that publishers, fearful that they could become legally liable by running the wrong ad, would choose to reject all diet ads before selectively rejecting any single ads. He also said publishers were concerned reviewing diet ads would start a trend.
The FTC isn't buying it. Instead, officials maintain the flood of diet ad claims requires that marketers, industry groups and media take voluntary action to protect consumers-and the agency is hinting about what will happen if voluntary action isn't taken.
Media companies must "forgo placing ads that result in a fraud on the public who are, after all, their customers too," said FTC commissioner Sheila Anthony. She said some media companies "are either not paying attention or are placing their pocketbook interests above the public interest they are claiming to serve."
According to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR, $194.5 million was spent in magazines by vitamin, nutritional-supplement and weight-loss product marketers in 2001. That figure, however, includes all marketers, not simply those targeted by the FTC for over-inflated claims.
J. Howard Beales III, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said the FTC didn't expect media companies to extensively review ad copy. But he believes the media should at least read ads and reject any containing obviously fraudulent claims. "We aren't looking for media companies to set up an elaborate review process," he said. "We want a simple reading. There are always gray areas, but that doesn't mean you can ignore the black and white."
FTC officials have praised major TV networks for reviewing ads before they air. They have said their complaints about the media are aimed at publishers, local stations and cable networks who aren't conducting similar reviews before running obviously bogus ad claims.
Mr. Beales said it was unlikely magazine publishers will pull all diet ads.
One editor present at the hearing suggested the ads' increased visibility were partly a result of the economy. "When times are difficult and the ad business melts away, some of the back of the book ads move up," said Ellen Levine, editor in chief of Hearst Corp.'s Good Housekeeping.
Individual publishers last week declined to confirm the MPA's threat but also didn't deny it. "I'd have to see the guidelines before I could answer but it's not unusual for us to walk away from business when it was simply the right thing to do," said the publisher of a major magazine.
Several publishers did not immediately return calls. One that did, Gruner & Jahr Publishing USA, said in a statement that "We are confident that we comply with all applicable laws, rules and regulations regarding advertising content."
The FTC sees media screening of diet ads as one tool to ease problems but also wants marketers to better use industry codes and industry challenges of other claims to limit outlandish claims.
Ms. Anthony suggested that the National Advertising Review Council, created by the Council of Better Business Bureaus and major ad groups, should establish a separate unit to review diet ads. John Cordaro, president-CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, which represents leading dietary supplements makers, said his group has been in talks with NARC about creating a unit.