Results still aren't typical

If you saw a diet ad in the United States during the first years of the new millennium, chances are there was an inconspicuous asterix hidden somewhere with the text "Results not typical." These "product does not work" warnings weren't invented by the diet industry. They were actually mandated by the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC guidelines on the use of testimonials in ads were supposed to control false claims, but they came up with a little gift for the diet industry. As long as they qualified any non-representative testimonials with the "Results Not Typical" qualifier, they could make whatever claim they wanted. Didn't matter if the product failed 95% of the time or more. As long as you can document it working once, you were in the clear with just some fine print.

You may notice that this qualifier is no longer on diet ads. Is this because the results are now typical? Oh, goodness, no. Its actually because in 2009, the FTC decided the charade of "Results not typical" was just that. A charade. It determined that "best case scenario" testimonials were inherently deceptive and wrote new guidelines that forbid them. Well, that's what they said they were doing. What they actually did was empower the diet industry to fully resist a disclaimer they always felt was bad for business. The industry correctly recognized that the FTC really didn't have enough power to police their claims. It moved the qualifications off the ads and behind the scenes on flimsy "data" they could point to and shut down any FTC enforcement.

Basically, they were able to gin up "studies" that built atypical assumptions right into their construction. Those studies would show that the product worked just enough so they'd be immune from FTC enforcement. Didn't matter if the product only worked under very strictly defined circumstances and it didn't matter if there was no long term proof of success. The FTC's switch allowed the diet industry to do what they've long done in their marketing and that's blame dieters when diets fail. Their product works, you see. Its just the dieter that was doing it wrong. Their $40,000,000,000 industry is built on ensuring dieters always blame themselves for their failures and never the culture of dieting. This just codified that.

In the perversely inevitable result, we now see Weight Watchers replace that asterix with the slogan "Because it Works". Sure. You just need to "control" for all the times it doesn't work. Once you eliminate that data, the success rate is phenomenal! Basically, the new rule of fat shaming marketing is "Results Typical (If you ignore all the times it isn't)". Its a win-win for the diet industry. They lose the qualifier all at the price of continuing to blame fat people for the absurd record of failure the diet industry has left in its wake. What's not to love?

Just look at what passes for "working" with regards to Weight Watchers. A Lancet study of participants who all received the Weight Watchers program for free (a $500 value) lost an average of 10lbs a year. 10lbs is considerably less than the claims you'll see in any Weight Watchers ad and a good deal less than their claim that people can lose 1-2 lbs a week. Even that modest claim isn't verified by a study Weight Watches paid for to prove its success! And the study lost 40% of its participants in its 1 year. Gosh only knows what the results would look like 2 years out with all participants. But its something, and that's good enough for the FTC, I guess. Never mind that their latest ad includes a testimonial of someone who lost 100+ lbs. A result not typical even with the best data money can buy. It just doesn't matter anymore. The Weight Loss industry can lie all they want and no one will stop them.

The claims of Weight Watchers, and Jenny Craig, and Nutrisystem are still not typical. They are still hand-selected testimonials, often of people who are professionally losing weight. They can still make atypical claims in their ads. The FTC just decided that they'll be the ones the diet industry has to make the tortured qualifications to, leaving them freer than ever to lie to their consumers. Fat shame is a very profitable business. Not "because it works", but because it doesn't.


silentbeep said...

I was watching a Jenny Craig commercial where Valerie Bertinelli is being interviewed and she says she was constantly dieting before jenny, that she got up to 175 lbs. And i thought there is an admission right there that dieting is a pretty good way to gain weight, more than you had before the 'before' picture. It was absurd.

Brian said...

The hideous thing is the diet companies use this to their advantage. They cultivate the testimonials that talk about a life-time of failure so that customers will identify with the paid spokespersons. To any failed diet who has yet to sign on, the failures are all the fault of those other diets. Once the dieter has signed on and failed, then its all their fault for not sticking with it. At the same time they are blaming dieters, they try to exploit that shame by offering them a way out. Its sick that this system just keeps self-perpetuating.

Brian said...

I'm sure its one of many, but I stumbled on a great piece from fatfu in 2008 examining another attempt by Weight Watchers to use data to show its success. There, 0.24% of "Lifetime Members" maintained a goal weight loss of maybe 10lbs after 5 years. As with the study I cite above, these are members who've had their fees waived; in this case by reaching their goal weight so it even further 'controls' the subjects to those who had at least one "success" with WW. You can't do more cherry picking than that, but they still only got 2 of a 1,000 who maintained their goal weight after 5 years. But still, WW thinks this proves they are successful. The other 998 were just stupid failures, I guess. I mean, just look at how overwhelming the evidence is.

Brian said...

Naturally, I forgot the link...


sossajes said...

my campus center TV screens--only present in the cafeteria and the gym--have a campus Weight Watchers ad cycling through the various campus group announcements. and the best part is right up there the copy claims that "It's not a diet. It's a way of life." or some such bullshit.

it's a real kick in the teeth, especially as it has taken me years to get to the point where i can go to the gym without fretting too much about being observed, and just enjoy feeling active, and every time that damn ad comes up i'm reminded that i should be ashamed of myself.

Anonymous said...

I think "results not typical" is a version of what the folks at Science-Based Medicine call the Quack Miranda Warning ("These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.")

Anonymous said...
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Brian said...

This is NOT a forum for diet talk or diet apologetic. "I did it! So can you!" is not an argument. Nor is "I did it, so they must not be bad people." The entirity of the diet industry eagerly participates in and promotes the shaming and stigmatization of fat people. Weight Watchers in particular has spent a lot of marketing tacitly encouraging employers to discriminate against fat employees by producing promotional materials describing all the ways fat employees are a burden. You want to sing their praises, do it at any of the million sites eager to stomp all over the rights of fat people. Don't bring that here.

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