Topic: Business & Commercial

The Ethics of Weight-Loss Commercials
(2/13/2006)

Is there any category of products more unethically advertised than those produced by the weight loss industry? Could there be? The commercials that regularly appear on television perfectly define the distinction between legal and ethical. The ads avoid outright falsehoods, while still misleading and deceiving by using carefully chosen words and images. Nobody should trust companies that communicate this way, but overweight Americans send them millions of dollars. Is good ethics good business? Not in the weight loss industry.

The most outrageous and comic of the deceptive TV commercials are those for the Saunabelt, a Velcro-fastened heating pad that "sweats off inches," and costs over a hundred dollars (absent those special TV offers, of course) to purchase. The device has no effect on an individual's fat at all: it creates temporary water-weight reduction through the loss of sweat, and similarly fleeting measurement reductions. Nevertheless, the commercials use animation, computer imaging and morphing techniques to create the impression that the Saunabelt can transform an individual's physique from that of a Sumo wrestler to the contours of a swimsuit model. The most hilarious of these shows obese male and female models strapping on the belts around their ample middles and suddenly becoming slim, fit and beautiful. Even their heads get smaller. (As the ad says, you can wear the Saunabelt on any part of your body.) The rest of the commercial shows spectacularly fit models, who have no evident fat to lose, grinning ear to ear as they wear the Saunabelt while playing ping-pong, reading, or using the vacuum cleaner. The implication, absurd but effective, is that these were once typical overweight Americans before they got their belts.

The commercial avoids running afoul of the law by never actually stating that the product reduces fat or can make fat people thin. It simply uses every technique possible to create that impression without risking a mail fraud indictment.

Legal? Yes, barely. Unethical? Absolutely.

But no more unethical than the commercials for NutriSystem, Jenny Craig and their ilk that show testimonial after testimonial by real users who have completely transformed their bodies while using their products. The "before and after" photos are stunning and unretouched. 25 pounds lost! 56 pounds…78 pounds…115 pounds! And if you look really, really hard, there on the screen, in small block letters colored white against the light background so they are easy to miss, are the words:

"Results not typical."

"Results not typical?" When you are considering a new product, aren't the typical results the ones you want to know? Imagine a headache drug commercial featuring a happy user saying that it eliminated her headache in 20 minutes…and including the words "results not typical." Who would buy such a drug? Picture a beer company launching a commercial that features a guy who downs a beer and shouts, "This tastes great…and is less filling!" right over the printed words "results not typical." Somehow, I don't think sales would soar. In the weight loss ads, the companies are counting on the fact that some desperate dieters will be so impressed with the atypical transformations that they'll try the product in the hope that they will be one of the lucky ones, and more importantly, that most viewers won't even see the disclaimer. That's why it is juuust barely large enough and readable enough to get past FCC regulations. Legal. And unethical. Presenting only atypical results from a product is inherently misleading, and putting a disclaimer in barely noticeable print indicates a probable intent to deceive.

The advertising practices of the weight-loss industry demonstrate the limitations of the law in protecting the public and consumers. As long as unethical practices are effective, there will be companies that use them. The Scoreboard suggests that consumers consider whether any company that uses such practices is a fit partner for commerce. It should be obvious what the typical result of trusting these companies is likely to be.

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