Federal Trade Commission Chairman Timothy J. Muris today called on media executives to "Do the Right Thing" and stop running ads that contain obviously deceptive weight loss product claims. Speaking to the Cable Televison Advertising Bureau in New York, Muris said that ads that make claims and promises that are clearly implausible and patently false run in "all forms of media, with the notable exception of network TV." He urged members of the media to help protect consumers, as well as the credibility of advertising, by promoting truthful weight loss ads.
Muris said that fraudulent weight loss ads are on the rise. "Last September . . . the FTC released a report that analyzed 300 weight loss ads that ran in 2001. We found rampant use of false or misleading claims. Almost 40 percent made a claim that was obviously false; another 15 percent made at least one claim that was likely to be false or unsubstantiated. When we compared weight loss ads from 1992 with 2001, the recent ads were much more likely to contain obviously false claims." Because many deceptive ads run in highly respected publications, they are perceived to be credible.
"We all have a shared stake in promoting truthful advertising," Muris said. "Profit and prosperity are not at odds with ethical advertising." The FTC is currently developing a list of scientifically unfeasible claims that appear "repeatedly and fraudulently" in deceptive weight loss ads. Muris urged the media to use this list to monitor their ads. "By identifying false claims, we think we can vastly simplify your job," he stated. He said monitoring and screening of weight loss advertisements for accuracy, not just taste and appropriateness, will help reduce advertising fraud and its damage to consumers, as well as increase the credibility of advertising in general.
Muris emphasized that while FTC efforts to combat fraudulent weight loss product advertising will continue in the future, media members also need to protect consumers. "We can't solve this problem alone, and regulatory powers of government should be the last, not the first, resort. Relying on private initiative brings us closer to the ideals of a free society while providing a powerful incentive to improve performance," he said.
Muris addressed some of the concerns members of the media industry have expressed regarding further screening of advertisements. He stressed that the media would not have to take costly steps, such as hiring scientists to review potential ads. "We're not asking media outlets to review clinical studies or other substantiation for weight loss ads," he said; rather, "the clearance process would simply mean comparing the claims in an ad with the claims on our list and making any necessary cuts." He also noted that the FTC is only asking for a review of ads for weight loss products, such as over-the-counter pills, not diets or exercise plans.
Finally, Muris addressed the argument that screening for false weight loss ads raises First Amendment concerns. "The media, appropriately, do have substantial First Amendment protection. Yet, there is no Constitutional right to run false commercial advertising, just as there is no Constitutional right to make false statements about individuals in your news stories. You take extensive steps to prevent defamation. We are asking for modest steps to prevent fraud," Muris said.
Muris concluded by noting that the FTC and advertisers both have a shared interest in promoting truthful advertising, and that the FTC's commitment to combating fraudulent weight loss claims is part of its larger goal, protecting consumers from all types of fraud. He urged the media to take part in a "joint endeavor, one that includes voluntary and effective media screening," to protect consumers from the harmful physical and financial consequences of purchasing and using a weight loss product based on false advertising claims.