FTC Gets Tough on Diet Ad Claims, Eases Up on the Media

10 December 2003

The Federal Trade Commission has soft-pedalled its previously tough stance with media owners regarding dietary ad claims.

The regulator has backed away from last year's hairy-chested threat to sue broadcasters and publishers who carry advertisements for dubious diet and weight-loss products. In more relaxed mode, the FTC on Tuesday acknowledged that media owners are running fewer "clearly false" ads -- and that adherence to voluntary guidelines is the best way forward.

Says the FTC's Howard Beales, director of its Bureau of Consumer Protection: "We think that the media has an interest in trying to make sure the information they provide their readers is truthful and accurate. What we're trying to do is make it easier for them to identify the problem ad in this area, and keep [fraudulent ads] from ever running."

After putting three hundred ads for weight-loss products under the microscope last year, the FTC concluded that deceptive advertising was widespread, some 40% of the ads making one or more false statements. Based on this study, the regulator has issued new guidelines for media-owners and will continue to take enforcement action against transgressing marketers.

Although the guidelines eschew mention of specific products, there are seven types of claims that should set alarm bells ringing. Topping the list are ads promising weight loss without the need to change eating or lifestyle habits; likewise pills, dietary supplements or skin patches that assure the gullible of "substantial" weight loss regardless of how much food they consume.

The guidelines were welcomed by the media industry. They are a more realistic approach, believes John Kimball, chief marketing officer of the 2,000-strong Newspaper Association of America. "We don't think that newspapers should be in the role of policing advertising claims, but I think that the guidelines will give the newspapers some direction."

The FTC's website will post the updated guidelines within the next few days and they will also be distributed to members of advertising and media trade associations.

Data sourced from: The Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff