Money & Business

Deceptive Weight-Loss Ads Put Media Groups on Defensive

By / Feb 3, 2014 (iStock/Thinkstock)

A recent Federal Trade Commission crackdown on false weight-loss ad claims has some questioning whether news outlets should do more to police the ads they publish. But media trade groups say they shouldn’t be held liable for sketchy claims.

You know the ads: full of promises about weight-loss results you’ve been waiting for, but with claims that are sketchy at best and predatory at worst.

Those pitches aren’t going unchecked. To start the new year, the Federal Trade Commission cracked down on several weight-loss products that rely on misleading advertising claims.

Both the FTC and an advocacy group have called on media outlets to do a better job vetting such ads. But a couple of key trade groups say an ad’s credibility is in the eye of the beholder. More details:

A well-timed crackdown: The FTC’s “Operation Failed Resolution,” targeting weight-loss aid and supplement suppliers that make dubious ad claims, has reached full or partial settlements with four companies—Sensa, L’Occitane, HCG Diet Direct, and LeanSpa. Their products didn’t help consumers drop pounds, the FTC says, and the agency will use the settlements to refund money to people fooled by the false claims. “Resolutions to lose weight are easy to make but hard to keep,” Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. “And the chances of being successful just by sprinkling something on your food, rubbing cream on your thighs, or using a supplement are slim to none. The science just isn’t there.” The companies have agreed to pay roughly a total $34 million, with Sensa on the hook for $26.5 million of it.

“Why sully your good name?” The agency’s focus on the issue isn’t limited to the companies that make the products. Its Bureau of Consumer Protection argues on one of its Business Center reference pages that media outlets that fail to develop and enforce standards for advertisers endanger their own reputations—and could have problems collecting fees from scam artists. “Accuracy is your company’s stock in trade,” the page reads. “Why sully your good name by being known as a publication or station that promotes rip-offs?” The advocacy group TruthInAdvertising.org (TINA.org), agrees with the FTC’s stance. TINA Editor Fran Silverman writes that despite shrinking ad revenue, “a media outlet’s reputation is on the line” if it fails to vet advertising for accuracy with the same rigor it applies to editorial content.

Media groups push back: The associations that represent the newspaper and television industries say that the responsibility for questionable claims ultimately lies with advertisers, not media outlets. “Newspaper advertising people are not doctors,” Paul Boyle, senior vice president of public policy for the Newspaper Association of America, told TINA’s Silverman. Boyle added, “Are they capable of making a determination of whether or not a claim is accurate or not in regards to the way it is phrased and [its] health effect? That is why we firmly believe the responsibility is on the advertiser and not the media.” National Association of Broadcasters Executive Vice President Dennis Wharton shared a similar view with Silverman, saying that “you have to trust your listeners or viewers to have a truth meter embedded in their brain.”

As Silverman notes, current law provides little incentive for media self-regulation. Media outlets are not liable for a deceptive ad unless they endorse it themselves. “The less they do to vet an ad, the less liable they are,” she writes.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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