Yes, Those Outrageous Online Weight Loss Ads Are Too Good to Be True

There has been quite a commotion in the news recently about diet and weight loss promotion and advertising. A U.S. Senate Subcommittee recently held a hearing on the issue where Dr. Mehmet Oz, famed host of The Dr. Oz Show, was the focus of many of the committee members' questions because of his on-air promotion of several different ingredients in widely marketed dietary supplements, and the participation of such a high-profile witness did garner significant media attention (not every Senate hearing is featured in a lengthy segment on Last Week Tonight With John Oliver).

I, too, testified at the hearing.

Despite the brouhaha surrounding Dr. Oz's grilling by members of the subcommittee, the hearing did shine a light on the activities of the $30 billion dietary supplement industry that sells products containing acai berry, raspberry keytones, green coffee beans and other "magical" ingredients. While it is not illegal to sell these products (and there are some perfectly legitimate sources where they can be bought), the efficacy of what some marketers claim these products can do is widely debatable.

This practice becomes illegal when these products are advertised by scammers under false claims. Unfortunately, this happens quite often -- especially on the Internet.

All too often, people look for the easy way out to avoid the commitment and dedication required to shed pounds through diet and exercise. They turn to diet pills and other products that are marketed with outrageous claims like, "Lose 30 pounds in 30 days!" or "Never diet or exercise again!" This kind of consumer behavior is a dream come true for scammers, and they've turned to the Internet to advertise their products to a near-instant audience and quickly capitalize the latest diet trend.

Federal agencies have long recognized the weight loss scam problem and have actively worked to educate consumers about misleading claims. In addition to its active law enforcement against scammers, the FTC's Consumer Information website has an entire section devoted to weight loss and fitness that outlines many of the advertisements that users could encounter on the internet and debunks their claims. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) website also provides consumers with helpful information about weight loss fraud.

Catching these scammers is a bit like playing "cat and mouse" and some of these ads are difficult to spot amongst the billions of legitimate ads served every year on online advertising platforms like Google, Facebook and others. Fortunately, most of these types of ads never reach the user. But despite the internet industry's efforts, these scammers are relentless in finding ways to game the system and circumvent the automated filtering systems many platforms use to flag and weed out bad ads. Unfortunately, some of these ads do end up on the web. And those that do see a significantly high rate of engagement -- people are clicking on them.

The Internet industry has a very strong incentive to keep bad ads off the web. Ads fund today's web and help business grow, and if someone clicks on a bad ad on one platform, their behavior will likely change across the entire web, which could have a significant short- and long-term negative impact on advertisers, publishers, consumers and the entire online ads economy.

With support from AOL, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Yahoo, (the organization I run) launched earlier this year and offers guidance to consumers on how to avoid scams through the regular release of what we call our Bad Ads Trend Alerts. We recently released our newest report on fraudulent ads related to weight loss products and dietary supplements.

Collectively, these companies have hundreds of individuals on their respective teams spanning policy, engineering, network security and legal dedicated to identifying and preventing this illegal activity. And over the past year and a half, AOL, Google, Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo have collectively removed or rejected over 2.5 million ads related to weight loss and dietary supplements due to numerous ads policy violations. The steps these companies have taken aim to complement the continued efforts by agencies such as the FTC to enforce existing law and ensure that consumers are presented with truthful and accurate information in online ads.

The phrase "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is" is often overused but it certainly rings true with dietary supplement and weight loss advertisements -- be it on TV, in print, on the radio or on the Internet. As scammers continue to look for ways to deceive consumers, we all must keep a watchful eye, use common sense, and face the reality that diet and exercise are the only ways to shed those unwanted pounds.

And let's face it: If there was miracle weight loss ingredient that held true to some of these unbelievable claims, Coke and Pepsi would be putting it in every bottle of soda they sell.