Weight-loss ads are false? Who knew?
September 20, 2002
I was schocked, shocked to learn this week that many diet advertisements don’t live up to their claims.
For years, I’ve believed I could go on eating as much as I wanted of anything I wanted and never move out of remote-control range of the television because weight-loss miracles were only a 1-800 number away.
“Try Fat-No-Mo for just six days, and if you don’t lose 45 pounds, we’ll refund your money,” they promise.
“Tired of exercising? Lose weight while you sleep. And look fitter and trimmer too!”
“Our new Wonder Diet guarantees you’ll look like a new person before the end of the month, or we’ll eat our words.”
The advertisements typically show before-and-after photos of people who lost 120 pounds in two weeks. The before photo is kind of dark and out of focus, showing the person in a muu-muu and holding a chocolate eclair in both fists.
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In the after photo, a squad of Hollywood makeup artists having apparently worked their own magic, the person is tanned and fit — and a shadow of their former self. I love the photos, regularly seen in publications such as the National Enquirer, in which the guy is holding out the waistband on his formerly fat trousers, showing there is now room for two or three of him in there, plus most of his family and pets.
Unfortunately, along came the Federal Trade Commission with its first official study of weight-loss ads. It found that 55 percent of weight-loss ads make claims that are almost certainly false or misleading.
“There is no miracle pill that will lead to weight loss,” Surgeon General Richard Carmona said. “Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight requires a lifelong commitment to healthful eating and adequate physical activity.”
We were discussing this news story in our regular afternoon meeting at the Appeal when desk editor Karl Horeis intoned in his best nightly TV anchor voice, “And in other news, professional wrestling is fake.”
We all chuckled. (If you’re not chuckling, and you’re a fan of professional wrestling, I apologize.)
It seems obvious to me that most people don’t believe most diet advertisements. It also seems obvious that some people do believe some of them. We want to believe. If we’re desperate enough, or we have money enough — or the worst combination of all, desperate and rich — we’re willing to try just about anything that promises amazing results with little or no effort.
This country pretty much runs on the premise that somebody somewhere is going to come up with a faster, better, cheaper way to do everything. And when they do, we’re going to shower them with money.
What fascinates me, however, is the fine distinctions we draw — or, perhaps, the government draws — between bald-face lying crooks and magazine-cover entrepreneurs.
I hardly need to bring up Enron. It’s the ultimate example of run-amok greed, total fabrication, political influence-buying, a giant pyramid scheme that wrecked a nation’s economy.
Of course, we know all that now. Before it went bankrupt, Enron was the American dream.
But Enron’s a little too big for me to comprehend. I can comprehend weight-loss advertisements. I can also get a grip, maybe not the right term, on advertisements that promise I’ll grow 2 inches in whatever particular body part seems to be underdeveloped.
Ads making such outlandish claims get the attention of the FTC. In fact, it wasn’t too long ago the government shut down a business in Las Vegas that was promising it could make me taller. Did I really believe a pill would make me taller? I’m not that rich, nor that desperate.
But every night I can turn on my television and see commercials that make claims just as outrageous.
Have you seen the one where a pickup truck hauls an ice-breaking ship? How about the one where an SUV drives underwater? Or the one where the guys in the four-wheel-drive get to the top of the mountain before the guy flying a helicopter?
These commercials sometimes have a small line at the bottom that says “Dramatization.” I think I know what that means, but it would be a lot clearer if they would simply say “The pickup truck didn’t really tow the ship, you moron.” Or, if that’s too long, why don’t they label such commercials “Total Falsehood.”
What the companies are trying to convey, though, is that their pickup truck might just be strong enough to tow a 4,800-ton freighter across the Arctic Circle, given the right circumstances. It’s all about image advertising now. If they actually did come up with something faster, better, cheaper, well, I suspect they would just tell us that.
But are we ever going to see the Surgeon General stand up at a news conference to announce, “Fifty-five percent of all beer commercials showing some slob being ogled by a super model are misleading. Achieving and maintaining a healthy relationship with a super model requires a lifelong commitment to being wealthy beyond the imagination of mere mortals like you.”
In other words, it doesn’t matter how desperate you are. You’re never going to be that rich.
Besides, it wouldn’t hurt you to take off a few pounds, either.
Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal.
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