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Intermediaries and weight-loss scams

Chris Hoofnagle, adjunct professor of information | March 4, 2010

The Federal Trade Commission found in 2002 that:

The use of false or misleading claims in weight-loss advertising is rampant. Nearly 40% of the ads in our sample made at least one representation that almost certainly is false and 55% of the ads made at least one representation that is very likely to be false or, at the very least, lacks adequate substantiation. The proliferation of such ads has proceeded in the face of, and in spite of, an unprecedented level of FTC enforcement activity, including the filing of more than 80 cases during the last decade.

This report contained a survey of a variety of media, and found that: “…based on our comparison of 1992 magazine ads with magazines ads for 2001, the number of products and the amount of advertising, much of it deceptive, appears to have increased dramatically over the last decade.”

If consumer education is failing to prevent the proliferation of these schemes, and if all the enforcement power in the world cannot stop them, why not think about a different approach — to what extent should advertising intermediaries, like direct mail houses, broadcasters who air infomercials, newspapers, and online advertisers be liable for weight loss scams? Joanne Ikeda describes how she wrote to the Federal Trade Commission and a newspaper about a weight loss scam; she got a response from the FTC, but what about the newspaper? If a newspaper’s job is to inform the citizenry, is it ethical for it to profit through misinforming them in ways that are potentially harmful? And does this lucrative advertising create incentives to avoid critical investigation and reporting on weight loss scams?

Free speech advocates oppose intermediary liability, on both practical and principled grounds. They argue that the volume of ads, especially online, makes it impossible to engage in editorial review. However, this assertion is false both online and off — newspapers do have advertising clearance standards. Sometimes they are completely arbitrary, and in fact, if you want to see a free speech zealot forget about the value of free expression, just try to place a print advertisement in his newspaper that criticizes another major advertiser.

And as I wrote in an article about Google’s privacy attitudes, online companies review advertisements too. For instance, Google simply won’t allow ads for some products. Their policy seems to allow some weight loss products, but “miracle cures,” which would encompass some weigh loss scams, are clearly prohibited. In fact, Google seems to be able to manage dozens of advertising exclusions, even online, where rules are impossible, according to some.

Having tried many other options, we should consider whether the intermediaries profiting from these scams deserve some critical attention.

Comments to “Intermediaries and weight-loss scams

  1. Thanks Chris, yes ive given up!?, all the weight loss progams are SCAMS if you read most of them (very closely over & over a few times they make liare’s of themself promoting their own product. i have on my computer an item about visceral fat, in my opinion that is what we need to get rid of!. as this fat damages your organs, for my part that is my aim to get rid of VISCERAL FAT NOT ONLY FOR MY HEALTH SAKE BUT!. LOOSE WEIGHT AT THE SAME TIME. thanks for your article keep up the good work.

  2. Hey Chris Hoofnagle,
    I have read your “Intermediaries and weight-loss scams” article. It’s helpful. Thanks for writing this article. Keep it up.

  3. Even if most of the advertise online is a scam what it should be pointed out is how easy is to lure people to think that miracle pills works for real.

    Probably we should invest more in educate people to document themselves, by reading online review and asking professional.

    But this will lead to the next level and you will find fake online reviews.

  4. I agree but how do you stop all the sites on world wide web from advertising all these products? It is just impossible to manually check all of them. Yet there are new weight-loss products coming out everyday…

  5. Scammers exploit the fact that people can often be attracted by promises of success with little effort. Many weight loss scams suggest that you can achieve great results without having to do any extra exercise or even modify your diet. Thanks for the information.

  6. We get on a scale and trust the numbers that roll up. The truth of the matter is we need to be much more concerned with the percentage of fat lost, verses the actual amount of weight lost. Losing muscle for the sake of a better number on the scale defeats the purpose of true weight-loss. In the end losing the wrong type of weight will make it all the easier to gain more weight back.

  7. So true. I’ve cut almost all sugar from my diet. I have been fighting my weight for a long time. I have an active job and I’ve been to the gym a few times a week for a couple of years and have never lost any weight.

    A couple of weeks ago I stopped drinking all sodas and sugary drinks. Instead I drink hot green tea and plenty of water. I let all those sugary winds granola bar he loved. I eat only organic bread wheat (Daves Killer Bread, yum!). I cut a lot of fat too.

    The weight is starting to come off and I’m so excited that drives me to keep doing better. Two weeks into my new lifestyle and baggy pants and am slowly starting to see physical changes.

  8. Eat the better fats . Studies suggest that a diet with a higher proportion of monounsaturated fatty acids ( MUFAs ) (avocados , nuts, seeds , soybeans , chocolate) can prevent the accumulation of both types of belly fat. Soluble fiber (apples , oats , cherries ) lowers insulin levels , which , as mentioned above , can accelerate the burning of abdominal visceral fat ( the fat you can see and grab ) . One way to do this is to let the skin of your fruits and vegetables. Eating fruits and vegetables in your diet will add fiber , but only if you eat the skin , because that’s where all the fiber is . If you’re eating potatoes , try to leave the skin on the plate (as if making baked or mashed) or if you peel them , make a snack of them , such as baked garlic Parmesan peels . Also worth knowing that keeping the skin of the potatoes when cooked will help keep more vitamins and minerals in meat.

  9. I’m just an inch taller than you, weigh 127, have larger body the rest of my thighs, but I wear a 4/2, depending on who the hell is doing the laundry. If you focus on strength training will help lower legs so I think I fit in such small sizes now. I have short legs so they are kind of strong for me.

    ETA: My dress size however, is almost a negative number. Damn disproportions. complaint

  10. I think it depends on the people who see these advertisements. I mean there is not just weight loss, there are other scams as well. But it is up to the person to dig in deep before investing his/her hard earned money. But I do agree that there should be some kind of monitoring on these type of ads.

    For example I found this article which might help as an example:
    Does Green Coffee Bean Max Work

  11. On one hand I feel your pain. On the other, welcome to capitalism. When you watch TV and see all these commercials, do you really think that they are all honest? No, but they are paying millions of dollars of TV time because they want to sell. That’s it, they just want to sell.

    Look at Obama, our president, “if you like your health plan you can keep it, period”. Wasn’t that misleading? That’s because just like every other business people out there he wants to sell a product.

    I don’t think that McDonalds is going to say that Wendy’s is better or the other way around. It’s business. I agree that people who want to lose weight should consult a professional nutritionist or physician, but that’s not always going to be the case. Why? Because people are free to make their own choices, that’s why.

  12. Stanley Burroughs, who called himself a physician but had no medical license, created the Lemonade Diet as part of one of many unorthodox treatment methods used to treat gullible patients. Thanks.

  13. The old axiom, any diet you do consistently, over a period of time will work, is still true. People want instant gratification so getting through two meals on a diet should have produced weight loss because they are hungry and feel lighter. It does not work that way. What does work is switching to a diet of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, reducing the amount of meat and staying away from heavily processed foods. Read labels. If the list of ingredients is longer than one side of the box and sugar is among the first three ingredients, it is not good for you. Go home and cook something fresh.

  14. Been going on for years, doubt it’ll ever stop. People need to stop looking for the wonder cure though and actually put some effort into looking the way they want to.

  15. If you really want to loose weight you need to commit to a program or routine. You need to drink a lot of water, and job everyday and slightly change you eating habits if you change to fast you’ll not succeed.


  16. Scams in weight loss advertising? So…what’s new? It happens in every niche and industry you can think of. Now, more than ever, you have to do your due diligence and don’t be too quick to accept everything as “gospel”. Weight gain is very easy, but weight loss can be the most difficult battle you’ll ever fight.

    Find a regime that suits your needs… that allows you to eat sensibly and exercise regularly. Couple that with a bit of “stick-to-itiveness”, and a life of freedom from carting around excess weight can be yours to enjoy.

  17. Everyone wants that magic pill. There are just so many scams out there that it is just not fair to the person who is really searching for a way to lose weight in a healthy way. Many of these scams do more harm than good.

  18. From my experience, the best way to loose weight and to keep fit in future is to eat enough cellulose, there are special tables to make sure you fulfil your norm. It means in general more veggies, less carbs. But better keep the norm of cellulose each day.

  19. When grocery shopping, it’s less expensive and more nutrious to shop the outer perimeter of store with fresh fruit, veggies and juice (add your own water)include a little dairy and meat or fish. Stay out of the center aisles with processed foods, artifical flavoring & coloring, added sugar, salt and fat.

  20. Dieting diets do not work. In the long run, people who go on these unnatural diets where they deprive themselves of certain foods eventually lose their will power and return to their old habits. The major factor in a good diet is being able to maintain a stable blood sugar level.

    Many diets out there today cut out sweets and sugars and are high in proteins. The problem with such diets is that they make the body extremely acidic and the natural tendency of the body is to crave carbohydrates. That leads one right back to the cookies, cakes and candies, which if eaten in too great a quantity, will pack the pounds right back on.

  21. The reason for the increased advertising over the years is the extensive research done to see how much more revenue or sales adds bring in. People and companys no that advertisins is a must to increase sales and the more exposure you get the more sales you get. This is obviouse so it did not take long for people to start to market things that they knew nothing about.
    Weight loss is a massive niche and every body including people who have never used or sold a weight loss program in there lifes jumped on the band wagon. I have been involved in fitness and bodybuilding for 7 years now so if i market something it has to be real and true but there are people marketing things that just dont work the problem is on the internet alot more because anyone can go and become an affiliate for any product without knowing anything about the related subject . This problem is not only common in weight loss. It is common in other large markets such as bodybuilding , money making , marketing.

  22. Building more muscles is the way to reduce weight. Eat well build more muscles is the secret to weight loss.

  23. Look. There is only one true way to lose weight. Make sure that you expend more calories than you take in. One of the best ways to do this is by building muscle as muscle constantly burns calories.

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