Media companies, with reason, bristle at the idea that government might attempt to hold them legally liable for the truth of claims made by their advertisers. So there is a chill surrounding the Federal Trade Commission's plea, at a showcase Washington "workshop" last week, that the media exercise their "gatekeeper" role and refuse to accept weight-loss ads that appear on their face to be "too good to be true." Or else.
Reputable advertisers and media everywhere should support doing something about the stubborn deceptions in weight-loss ads. But hinting at taking media to court puts media executives in a combative, not cooperative, posture. Yet the chicanery of such claims as "lose weight without diet or exercise" is simply not defensible.
The commission can't solve this on its own. Since 1990, it's brought 93 false advertising cases against weight-loss claims, yet the problem seems more prevalent than ever.
Nor is it just media under scrutiny. Thought ultimately rejected in federal court, the FTC tried to make a celebrity endorser, former baseball player Steve Garvey, surrender fees he earned for making allegedly false claims for two diet products. And the FTC has long held that ad agencies have a legal duty to see that their clients have a "reasonable basis" for factual claims made in ads.
Quick reference guides that plainly identify claims known to be false or deceptive would help, as would continuing advice and assistance from sources media can trust, such as the Council of Better Business Bureaus' self-regulatory National Advertising Division.
Advertising and infomercial sales directors do not lightly turn away business in this ad economy, especially when "my competition has accepted it." It will take top management at media companies to raise standards. If serving viewers, listeners and readers truly has meaning, the gatekeeper can't turn a blind eye to obvious fraud and deception.