Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Results Not Typical

In Why We Make Mistakes, I write about what some people call "bikini power." This is the power of weight-loss ads featuring women in bikinis to convince us that we, too, can look socko in a swimsuit -- even if the odds are against it.

I cite the case of NutriSystem, the diet company based in Horsham, Penn., whose ads frequently feature the bikini-clad. Its securities filings, though, give a different image of their customers: most are "serial dieters" who have repeatedly tried and failed to keep weight off. On average, they are female, 44 years old, and weigh 210 pounds. Most start out wanting to lose 60 pounds but end up losing only about 20. Typically, after 10 or 11 weeks, they give up and drop out of the company's program.

For decades, the Federal Trade Commission has allowed diet companies to use ads like NutriSystem's so long as the ads feature a tiny, three-word disclaimer: "Results not typical."

Well, that is about to change. New FTC guidelines, last revised in 1980, require weight-loss companies and others to state just how "not typical" their results are.

Under the revised guidelines, advertisements that feature a consumer and convey the consumer's experience with a product or service as typical when that is not the case will be required to clearly disclose the results that consumers can generally expect.

In contrast to the 1980 version of the guidelines – which allowed advertisers to describe unusual results in a testimonial as long as they included a disclaimer such as “results not typical” – the revised guides no longer contain this safe harbor.

But the guidelines, so far as I can tell, say nothing about banning the use of bikinis....


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