In the US, weight loss businesses are subject to Federal Trade Commission voluntary guidelines for weight loss providers and guidelines on the use of product endorsements. And just added (March 2013) – official social media guidelines (start with Example 14 in the Appendix) and this easier-to-follow although slightly snarky example for marketing weight loss programs on Twitter.
In a nutshell, responsible weight loss advertising should reflect these facts:
- Sensible and healthy eating and exercise is important for weight management
- A BMI of 19 – 25 is a “healthy weight”
- A BMI >= 30 is “obese”
- Obesity is a serious chronic disease that shortens life span and leads to many serious illnesses
- Promises of quick effortless weight loss are meaningless because excess weight results from many interrelated factors
- A sedentary lifestyle makes it very hard to prevent weight gain or maintain weight loss
- Losing weight requires using more calories than you eat
- Even modest weight loss can improve health
- Effective weight management requires behavior modification
- Medical, drug and surgical interventions may help those with serious weight issues, in combination with healthy eating and exercise plans
For example, a weight loss program that promises that you can lose 20 pounds within 4 weeks simply by adding a nutritional supplement to your diet violates guidelines 1, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 10.
The FTC also addresses the use of testimonials and endorsements in weight loss advertising.
In a nutshell, if you make a claim that “our typical customer loses at least 30 pounds” you must maintain records proving that on average, your customers really do lose at least 30 pounds. Otherwise, you’ve got to include a disclaimer in a reasonably-sized font that says something like: “Most women who use ABC program for three months lose at least 10 pounds.” It’s not sufficient to say “results not typical” or “your results may vary.”
The FTC also provides guidance on false weight loss claims that it views as deceptive:
- Weight loss of two pounds/week or more, for a month or longer without dieting or exercise
- Substantial weight loss, no matter what you eat
- Blocks absorption of fat or calories
- Safely lets people lose more than 3 pounds/week for more than four weeks
- Substantial weight loss for everyone who uses this program or product
- Substantial weight loss by wearing it on your body or rubbing it into your skin
Is Anyone Watching?
Yes. The FTC has taken action against hundreds of weight loss advertisers who made false claims and lacked supporting evidence.