Editorial: Weight Loss Advertising: A Perspective

By Len Monheit

Earlier this week, the US Federal Trade Commission issued its report and press releases regarding weight loss advertising and trends it has observed over recent years. With well over 50% of weight loss advertising determined to be false, misleading and unsupported by science and evidence, the recap and presentation did not bolster the sector at all.

Within the report and evident in the communications, was the beginning of a consumer education program and a call for more responsibility on the part of marketers of weight loss products.

The message of responsibility was also intended for publishers and the media, in fact, the text of the report states, β€œIn the absence of laws and regulations to protect the public against dangerous or misleading products, a priority exists for the media to willingly ascribe to the highest advertising standards, i.e. those that reject the creation and acceptance of advertisements that contain false or misleading weight loss claims.”

β€œWeight Loss Advertising- an analysis of current trends”, FTC, September 17, 2002.

This extension of responsibility may appear obvious, but perhaps it is the tip of the iceberg, as higher responsibility and accountability is called for throughout the industry. Several publications and tradeshow organizers screen materials before printing or display at events, and I think we can expect this trend to increase. Will outsourced marketing and communications professionals (writers, advertising and PR agencies etc.) also be more accountable? If so, then industry familiarity, issue familiarity, and an excellent performance record become even more critical in selecting these services.

Taking responsibility and accountability in a different direction--a supplier certificate and a good historical relationship used to be enough to establish credibility, legitimacy, and proof of product identity and efficacy. This perception has changed in recent years, and as consumers and agencies become more aware of labeling discrepancies and product contamination, pressure is being applied for all suppliers along the chain to be more responsible and accountable for the products and services they offer. In-house or third party testing is more common, the role of the distributor or agent is changing, as is the level of responsibility expected of these firms. We can certainly expect to see a more transparent supply chain and marketplace as manufacturers and ultimately consumers and regulators will want to see a chain under complete management, with accountable and responsible firms at every juncture.

Another issue raised in the FTC communications this week was the need for consumer education about obvious fallacies in advertising. This underscores again the need for an industry consumer education strategy for the industry as a whole, if only to try to maintain a balanced perspective.

Over the past several months, I have heard many times over that the key to success for the future of the industry is to reach an expanded consumer base with our products and message, and this task is becoming more difficult.

And the many are judged by the behavior of the few.

And credibility is fragile.

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