By Rod Davis, CEO BBB Serving Southeast Florida and the Caribbean
When you take a few minutes to read a magazine, a website, or watch tv, the miracle cures for wrinkles, hair regeneration, snoring, high blood pressure, weight loss, and every other challenge we face on a daily basis are here today and readily available, but are they? Billions of dollars are spent by consumers chasing cures and solutions that just do not work. So how can you tell if an ad is true?
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the regulatory body most responsible for oversight of advertising. The FTC and the BBB both have Codes of Advertising that when followed, require claims of effectiveness and superiority be supported with solid data and, as appropriate, medical studies performed by reputable organizations using scientifically accepted methodologies. According to the FTC,
companies must support their advertising claims with solid proof. This is especially true for businesses that market food, over-the-counter drugs, dietary supplements, contact lenses, and other health-related products.
So, if there are ads and testimonials, then the claims must be true or the FTC would be issuing fines and requiring the ads be discontinued, right? Well not exactly. The number of ads, claims and transient nature of advertising make it impossible for the FTC and other regulators to stop the majority of false or unsubstantiated claims. BBB is also working with businesses to encourage them to follow good advertising practices and only make claims that are supported with applicable data and studies. BBB asks advertisers to provide documentation for claims made in our area and if they are not able to provide substantiation, to end or change the advertising to remove claims that can’t be substantiated. The rating for a business will be negatively affected if a business continues to run advertising that does not have appropriate substantiation.
As a consumer you play an important role in helping to promote honest advertising. Before you make a purchase with a business based on a claim, look for substantiation. The FTC provides some straightforward guidance to businesses about advertising and these examples can help you better evaluate the ads being used to get you to purchase a product.
An advertiser wishes to make the claim that a supplement product will substantially reduce body fat. The advertiser has two controlled, double-blind studies showing a modest but statistically significant loss of fat at the end of a six-week period. However, there is an equally well-controlled, blinded 12-week study showing no statistically significant difference between test and control groups. Assuming other aspects of methodology are similar, the studies taken together suggest that, if the product has any effect on body fat, it would be very small. Given the totality of the evidence on the subject, the claim is likely to be unsubstantiated.
An advertisement for a weight loss supplement features a before-and-after photograph of a woman and quotes her as saying that she lost 20 pounds in 8 weeks while using the supplement. An asterisk next to the quotation references a disclaimer in fine print at the bottom of the ad that reads, “Results may vary.” The experience of the woman is accurately represented, but the separate, competent research demonstrating the efficacy of the supplement showed an average weight loss of only 6 pounds in 8 weeks. Therefore, the disclosure does not adequately convey to consumers that they would likely see much less dramatic results. The placement and size of the disclaimer is also insufficiently prominent to qualify the claim effectively. One approach to adequate qualification of this testimonial would be to include a disclaimer immediately adjacent to the quote, in equal print size that says, “These results are not typical. Average weight loss achieved in clinical study was 6 pounds.”
The FTC recently brought an action against the sellers of Synovia alleging that:
sellers of Synovia claimed their dietary supplement “paves the pot holes” in joints damaged by arthritis. But an FTC lawsuit alleges the primary potholes were in the company’s purported proof, which left consumers steamrolled by false and deceptive advertising claims. In addition, the complaint alleges the company’s testimonials were rife with deception. According to the FTC, those purported doctor endorsements weren’t based on an appropriate exercise of medical expertise. What about the dozens of consumer testimonials featured in ads? In many instances, the people who praised the product didn’t use the formulation that was actually for sale. In other cases, their endorsements resulted from the defendants’ offer of free product in exchange for “especially positive and inspiring” reviews of Synovia – a material connection the defendants failed to disclose. Still other testimonials were flat-out fakes allegedly fabricated by the company. And that early user “Steve” who reported such dramatic results? The ads didn’t disclose that was A.S. Research’s co-owner – and now co-defendant – Stephen J. Young.
The old adage still holds, buyer beware. Before you spend your hard-earned dollars, do your research. Ask a business if they have proof to show the claims for their product/service are based on solid facts and research and if not, move on. Testimonials and reviews should also be carefully evaluated since they too can be manipulated to make a product or service seem more effective. If you see a questionable ad, report it to BBB at www.BBB.org/Ad-Truth.