Last year, the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a report that studied 300 weight loss ads and found that 40 percent of them made at least one false representation and 55 percent of them had at least one unsubstantiated claim.
The FTC noted that testimonials and before-and-after photos were commonly used in the ads but "rarely portrayed realistic weight loss."
The FTC report stated, "False or misleading claims are common in weight-loss advertising, and based on our comparison of 1992 magazine ads with magazine ads for 2001, the number of products and the amount of advertising, much of it deceptive, appears to have increased dramatically over the last decade."
The ads that were studied were found not just in TV infomercials and cheap tabloids but also in reliable mainstream newspapers and magazines.
The FTC said that lack of media screening in accepting ads for weight loss gives the products credibility and makes it harder for the public to discern what is true and what is not.
An ordinary person believes that if a trustworthy newspaper or magazine is allowing the ad to be printed, then the claims must be true. Unfortunately, this is not always so.
In the FTC press release, chairman Timothy J. Muris said, "We have known for some time now that there is a serious problem with weight-loss product advertising. This report demonstrates the extent of that problem."
He also said, "Reputable marketers continue to take care to avoid false and misleading claims, but it appears that too many unscrupulous marketers are making false claims promising dramatic and effortless weight loss to sell their products.
"It is not fair to consumers; it is not fair to legitimate businesses, it is illegal, and it will not be tolerated."
Those are fighting words, and while I don't mean to put down the valiant efforts of the FTC to rid the market of unethical advertising practices, the reality is that the FTC has its hands full trying to go after companies making false health and fitness claims because no matter how many they close down, two or three more spring up in place.
The only way for the public to be protected is through education. Consumers who are wise to the deceptive practices of weight-loss ads will hopefully have enough discernment to recognize a fake when they see one.
Here are some of the ways advertisers can mislead you with before-and-after photos:
The crudest method is using two different people – a fat out-of-shape person for the "before" and a slim fit person for the "after."
A short, stocky person cannot look like a tall, willowy fashion model even if he or she loses weight and gets fit. These are two completely different body types. But since many consumers are not educated enough or realistic enough to realize that no amount of exercise, diet, or taking of a weight-loss product will change their body to look like that of someone else, there will always be people who will fall for this old trick.
Remember that you can become a better-looking and better-functioning version of yourself but you cannot become someone else.
Other methods use the same person for the before and after pictures but twist the truth.
One ploy is claiming the results were achieved in a much shorter period of time than how it really happened. For example, the ad might say, "You can have rock-hard abs in just three weeks" when the truth is it took the person in the pictures years to achieve that look. Additionally, the person may not even have used the product but has allowed his or her picture to be used (for a generous fee, of course) to imply that.
It is much easier to make a fit body look unfit than to do it the other way around. So, a common practice is to pay a fit person to gain weight (imagine being paid to eat all the pizza and ice cream you want), wait for a couple of weeks, then take a picture and use that photograph as the "before." Then wait again as the person gets back in shape and take the "after" picture.
Let us not forget the power of photo editing, photoshop and retouching. These digital enhancements can instantly change a reality and give you the illusion of powerful and beautiful results - a facade - no 'true' hard work required!
The bottom line; be smart and remember always that it is a "caveat emptor" or "buyer beware" market when it comes to weight-loss and muscle-gaining supplements.
Source: Tina Juan - a certified fitness professional by the American Council on Exercise and the American College of Sports Medicine. She teaches group exercise, strength training, Pilates, and yoga. She co-founded and developed the Association of Fitness Professionals of the Philippines (now called Fitness Philippines Network), a 16-year old non-profit organization devoted to continuing education for fitness professionals.