The flood of diet advertising has increased 200 percent over the last decade, leaving regulators overwhelmed and dieters on a never-ending mission for the next quick-fix solution among the Wild West of advertising claims, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
With 61 percent of adult Americans overweight or obese, it's no surprise that consumers have helped create a market for the sale of products that are simply too good to be true.
Weight-loss claims for products like electronic muscle stimulators for the abdomen promise a no-sweat workout and to give you a sleek, sexy and defined look "all over."
"When you're struggling with a problem like obesity, you always want to believe that it's going to work," said Dr. Louis Aronne, a weight-loss expert at Cornell University Medical Center. "When people are desperate, it's easy to prey on them."
Can consumers really achieve the coveted six-pack look by simply wearing these EMS belts around their midriffs for just 10-minute intervals? According to the advertisements, it can be the equivalent of 600 sit-ups. Although such devices, when powerful enough, can produce some muscle strengthening, Dr. Gad Alon, who conducted a study on medical EMS devices at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, is skeptical.
"I don't think that anybody will ever get a rippled look out of electrical stimulation," he said. "Not from the medical devices, not from any other devices. The people that they show, you know — the models and the bodybuilders — have that body build before they put the belt on."
Companies: Device Is Only One Part of Plan
The advertisements show testimonials of weight loss, and enviable models in bathing suits, but experts say the devices themselves will not help you lose weight. EMS company executives argue that what they are selling is a complete system of diet and exercise, not just the gadget.
"We promote the Ab Energizer as an exercise device, not as a weight-loss device," said Tom Nelson, the president of Ab Energizer, one of the exercise belts marketed to the public. Weight loss, Nelson said, is "the overall result when you use the system."
The Ab Energizer system includes a bottle of diet pills, a meal plan and an aerobic exercise guide — all of which are barely mentioned in the ads.
What about the beautiful people posing seductively in the ads — where did they get those bodies? According to the producer of an infomercial for AbTronics, another EMS device, the models are treated as "fantasy" shots.
"When we hire models, we are not saying they used the AbTronic," he said. "Why not use them? They're good-looking people." However, the producer insisted that the people giving the testimonials had actually used the device.
Although these ads may not highlight all the facts and are designed to appeal to consumers' high hopes, others cross the line and are misleading. In those cases, the FTC does take action. Two years ago, the FTC obtained a record $10 million settlement against the maker of Fat Trapper and Exercise in a Bottle for making unsubstantiated claims.
According to Rich Cleland of the FTC, pre-market approval is not required for weight-loss advertising, making it harder to control the influx of ads hitting the market.
Getting a weight-loss ad to the public can be as easy as 1, 2, 3. "The manufacturer makes the product, the advertiser throws together an ad and then they take it to the media to run that ad," said Cleland.
According to Bob Garfield, an advertising critic, the media should be much more vigilant with their advertising standards and practices.
"There's not enough lawyers at the FTC and not enough state and local consumer affairs people to chase all this stuff down," said Garfield. "The media are not being gatekeepers and there is an endless reservoir of consumer gullibility and vanity that fuels this whole marketplace. So, what's the standard for advertising acceptability: Does the check clear?"