What You See Isn't Necessarily What You Get

Have you ever looked at those eye-popping before-and-after photos and wondered whether there was more to those images than met the eye?

Well, good for you. Often, when there's something advertisers don't want to brag about, they tend to bury it in the fine print.

Take the infomercials for Winsor Pilates exercise DVDs. In the commercials, noncelebrity enthusiasts boast: "I lost over 100 pounds using the Winsor Pilates program."

Was it all due to the Pilates program, though? What the ad glosses over is that the "special bonus" aerobic tape and the "Win in 10 Weight Loss Plan" aren't just for fun but crucial for taking off the pounds.

Company representatives, however, told us they believed the ad is clear -- that you have to follow the entire program to lose the weight.

A Sampling of Our Favorite Ads

Over the years, "20/20" has caught other advertisers playing all kinds of sneaky games with their before-and-after pictures. Here's a sampling of some of our favorites.

In 2004, we reported on an ad for an old formula of the weight-loss pill Hydroxycut.

Marla Duncan said that she had lost 35 pounds. It was "so easy," she said in the ad. Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, however, found one very good reason why. When she took the before picture, Duncan had recently been pregnant and just given birth.

Nixon said, "We wouldn't be suing people if we didn't think that they were deceptive."

Hydroxycut told us many of its ads disclosed Duncan's recent pregnancy, and denied any misrepresentation. Hydroxycut paid $100,000 to settle the case while denying any wrongdoing.

Then there was Mike Piacentino. In 2001, he was featured in before-and-after pictures for the popular pill Xenadrine.

What consumers didn't know was that he had started out as a competitive bodybuilder. Todd Macaluso, an attorney who is fighting Xenadrine over its weight-loss claims, said Piacentino testified that the company had paid him to eat.

"They gave him a food allowance, and they said, you know, 'You've gotta fatten up. Eat like a pig. Gain as much weight as you can. Stop working out,'" Macaluso said.

That's precisely what Piacentino did, gorging on boxes of doughnuts and gallons of ice cream and not working out. Piacentino said he put on the pounds for the before picture.

Piacentino testified that Xenadrine officials even coached him on posing for the before photo.

His lawyer described it like this: "They told him to stick his stomach out, to have a frown on his face. They told him to pull his shorts down below his belly button. And they told him to stand there like he was a slob."

Mission accomplished. With the before photo in hand, Piacentino said the company then had him reverse the process. He took Xenadrine but also used his bodybuilding expertise, working out hours at a time, to get back into shape. The result: a miraculous after photo.

But at least it was actually him in both pictures.

'From Flab to Rock-Hard Abs'

We also checked out the commercial for the Ab Energizer that showed what seemed to be an unbelievable transformation. The commercial promised, "You can go from flab to rock-hard abs."

If you looked more closely, as "20/20" producer Glenn Ruppel did, one guy in the ad had a birthmark and the other didn't. They were two different people wearing identical bathing suits.

When we questioned Ab Energizer about it, the company said there's no implication it's the before and after picture.

I asked Bob Garfield, advertising critic at Ad Age Magazine, about the whole before-and-after technique and told him I believed the ads.

"OK," Garfield said. "You're naive. … They're creating the illusion that you're going to achieve some miracle effect, when, in fact, you're not."

"Sometimes what the advertisers don't want you to know is that they're lying to you, which is what's going on here. They're lying with photographs."

Weight-loss ads aren't the only commercials that make promises that are too good to be true.

The Truth Behind Hair Genesis?

In 2003, "20/20" investigated the impressive before-and-after pictures from a baldness infomercial for Hair Genesis.

Dr. Dan Didocha, a disgruntled former business partner, told us that some had so much more hair in the after photo because they also had hair-transplant surgery, he said.

How could he be so sure? Didocha said he performed the surgeries himself.

He said, "In at least two of those [ad images], I know for sure that the main improvement was through the surgery."

It wasn't just on some of the before and after subjects, according to Didocha.

He said that he also operated on the Hair Genesis medical expert and the product's creator -- before their bitter falling out. The company insists the hair growth was due to its scientifically proven product.

What's more, Hair Genesis still uses the images on its Web site that Didocha's referring to.

So take Garfield's advice: Beware.

"Most of these before and after pictures work only on those who suspend common sense altogether."