FTC: Reject Bogus Weight-Loss Ads, or Else


Does the pitch seem too good to be true? The payoff too easy? If so, maybe your station or cable operation is being asked to sell time for a bogus weight-loss infomercial—one that could leave your company holding the bag for unpaid ad bills, or worse.

As part of a crackdown on the seemingly omnipresent pitches to help consumers cut pounds with little effort, the Federal Trade Commission wants media companies to voluntarily screen out such ads making unsubstantiated claims. But the agency's chief last week wouldn't rule out legal action against cable nets, broadcast stations and newspapers that continue airing the groundless promotions. "We'll deal with that situation if it happens," said FTC Chairman Timothy Muris as he unveiled screening guidelines.

Last week's guidance will be followed by a survey of the media to determine whether there has been the desired reduction in bogus claims.

Muris is confident that the desire to do the right thing and the fear of unpaid bills by advertisers that go bankrupt from lawsuits will be motivation enough that enforcement efforts won't have target media outlets.

NAB and NCTA officials say they will distribute the guidance to member stations, cable systems and networks.

Muris noted that one radio group, which an FTC staffer later identified as Infinity, was left with $10 million in unpaid bills when a fraudulent advertiser went under. "As we have gotten more aggressive with this type of advertising, " he pointed out, "that's a liability media outlets will face."

According to the guidance from the FTC, media outlets should reject ads making any of the following claims: loss of 2 pounds or more a week for a month or more without dieting or exercise, substantial weight loss no matter how much is eaten, permanent weight loss, blocked absorption of fat or calories, safe loss of more than 3 pounds a week for more than four weeks, substantial weight loss for all users, substantial weight loss by wearing a product on the body or rubbing it into the skin.

"There's no magic pill," Muris said, "no magic belt, no magic patch."