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Busted: 10 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Believe Diet Pill Ads [Learn from my expensive mistakes]

Posted Sep 23 2013 1:28am

IMAG0005-001 There’s a question mark because the answer is “No.” 

 I hate diet pill ads. They are the worst of the worst when it comes to advertising. And yet I’ve also tried just about every diet pill on the market. ( At one point . I haven’t taken any in over 4 years.) It’s so common sense that the ads are bogus, right? And yet they still sell like Doritos at a Dave Matthews concert. What gives? A) I’m a sucker. I love me a good testimonial from “Sheila E. – Tempe, AZ”! B) These ads are as seductive as they are slimy. Hello person in a doctor-looking lab coat! and C) I love a quick fix as much as the next girl. But over the years I’ve gotten a lot wiser thanks to experiencing every scary side effect possible (except death, by the grace of God) and being in the business long enough to see how the diet-advertising sausage gets made.

The other day when I was chatting with a friend, I was startled when she asked me about a certain diet pill. She’d seen a flashy ad and wanted to know if I’d tried it (yep, years ago) and if it worked (only if you count losing weight in my bank account).  As we talked and I pointed out the shady aspects of the ad, she was quite surprised. And I was surprised she was surprised. But I shouldn’t have been because I know how easy it is to get sucked in by these hucksters. I’ve spent years trying to teach myself how not to get drawn in. So when I was flipping through some lady mag and came across this ad for a new diet pill, I realized it exemplified every wrong thing and I thought I’d share them with you guys, in case you need a reminder too.


 I blurred out the name of the pill because I didn’t want to accidentally give them free advertising.

10 Reasons Why You Can’t Trust Diet Pill Ads

1. The too-good-to-be-true claim: “As incredible as it sounds, groundbreaking research has just identified a compound that can not only help you lose weight, but can actually reshape your entire body, reducing waist size, hip size, thigh and buttock circumference, belly bulge, and…last but not least… cause a significant loss of actual fat mass from all over your body.”

Wow, a pill that promises to trouble shoot every single “problem area” that women have? That does seem mighty incredible. And by incredible I mean the “so implausible as to elicit disbelief” definition. They might as well have called it the Giselle pill and been done with it. See that teeny tiny print at the bottom? It reads: “These statements have not been evaluated by the food and drug administration. Your results may vary.”  I’m guessing they vary across the entire human spectrum of body size and shape.

2. Looks like an actual article but isn’t. Doesn’t that photographic illustration of a pill on a plate look like any generic magazine diet spread? And the columns and the lots of print and the pull quotes? The first-person chatty narrative? All standard article formatting. But, having written* and read my fair share of “advertorials” – the unholy spawn of an advertisement and an editorial – I can tell you that they’re designed to confuse you. You’re supposed to be happily reading along in your magazine and just dive right in, not even realizing you’ve crossed into the la-la land of lucre. Thankfully ads are required by the FCC to be labeled as such and you should see it on the page somewhere, even if it is in tiny print.

3. Makes you feel bad about yourself. Then makes you feel special. First they have to break you down. How else will they sell you something unless they make a need for it first? Yep, this ad talks about the “places we all hate” like our thighs and tummies and love handles and everyotherfemalepartofus. And then it follows up with not only the solution to your “problems” – pills! buckets of them! – but then makes you feel unique and special with this gem: “Don’t go looking for it at your local Walmart. [...] It’s currently available only on a limited basis at prestige retailers across the U.S.” Clearly only high-class consumers will buy this product. You’re not some Hydroxycut Ho slumming it at the local Wally World are you?! No, of course not. You’re a classy broad. With lots of money. Probably woven into cardigans. Because you don’t want to be too flashy.

4. Stock photos. Any time I see the ladiez posing in all-white undies with heavenly light streaming in around them I immediately think Oh how nice they got a picture of a real woman looking happy! Hahahah! No I don’t. Actually I wonder if they got heavenly angels confused with Victoria’s Secret angels. And if they located this joyous, white-undied, white lady by just going to, closing their eyes and jabbing a finger at the screen. You can bet your non-white britches that model hasn’t even heard of the product much less swallowed any of those pills. We’re just lucky they remembered to remove the watermark first.

5. Before and after photos. And then there are the pictures of supposed “real, satisfied customers.” These may be the most abhorrent things used in diet advertising, in my opinion. Lies and trickery. First there are the flat out lies. Many of you know Roni from Green Light Bites as she’s been a part of the fitblogging community for pretty much ever. She recently wrote about how a diet company stole her photos off her site, slapped them on their site and claimed she’d lost 70 pounds in 30 days using their product.

Then there’s all the trickery. I’ve written before about my (male) bodybuilder friend who was paid a substantial sum of money to take a pic of his buff bod as the “after” for a diet pill company and then quickly de-condition, bloat up and look pouty while he snapped the second pic… as the “before.” I could write an entire post about the lighting, clothing, posing, tanning, photoshop and other photography tricks employed but this guy on the Huffington Post did it for me. He went from “before” to “after” in… an hour.


Seriously. Read this . This whole series of pictures was taken in under an hour. 

6. Testimonial quotes from random made-up people… or no people at all. The pull quote reads, “It’s sort of like eating a whole donut, but only absorbing a fraction of the calories…” It’s attributed to… no one. Which is good since it’s such a crap sentence that even a made up person would be too ashamed to cop to it. And of course when they quote “Jane D. from Tuscaloosa, AL” it’s impossible to fact-check. My other favorite is when they work in famous people’s names to make it look like they’re endorsing the product or, as in this case, just to up their Google search rankings by including Dr. Oz’s name. The ad states: “The fact that I get to tell you about it before Dr. Oz features it on his super-popular TV show is just the ‘icing on the cake’!” You see what they did there? (Besides randomly putting quotes around a standard idiomatic phrase?) They are implying it’s going to be on Dr. Oz! Which I’m sure is news to him.

7. Science-y jargon that makes no sense in real life or is so general as to apply to everything from root canals to rutabagas. This little piece of work shadily includes a reference to the British Journal of Nutrition, saying that their “miracle pill is backed up by serious clinical research published in the highly respected journal.” Thankfully that one is easy to fact check. Is there any reference to this pill in the BJofN anywhere? Of course not. Reading between the lines, I think they found a study that supported one of their many ingredients and extrapolated that to everything. Every time they talked about the research they wrote “a compound” instead of the name of their drug.

The ad also includes this nonsense: “In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial, study subjects…” It’s like they went to the Wiki page on Viagra and copy-and-pasted until their mouse finger sustained a 4-hour erection that required a trip to the ER. Naturally they don’t state who did the study or where or if it was published or anything else that would make it believable. For all we know the “study” was a sample of one and it was a rat wearing white underwear.

8. Deceptive ingredients. Ah, the wonder of the “proprietary blend”! This basically gives companies the latitude to throw whatever in there and not tell you. It would take too long for me to look up every ingredient in this particular product’s “Proprietary Weight Control Component” and “Proprietary Energy/Focus/Mood Component” but I did Dr. Google a few of them for you. Here are my faves:

- Phaseolus Compressus DC. This is apparently an older name for the common bean. Yes, like the beans you eat in chili. No word on if it gives you gas too.

- Theobroma Cacao. This is an extract of the cacao bean. (Yes, chocolate!) But before you get excited about the tasty treat, theobromine is a “stimulant similar to caffeine” and when used in large amounts – we don’t know how much is in this pill since it’s proprietary! – it can cause heart palpitations, dizziness, anxiety and most exciting – “psychoactive effects”.

- Trimethylxanthine. When I wiki’ed this one I actually burst out laughing. It’s the technical name for CAFFEINE. Plain, straight up, loveable ol’ caffeine. What would a “proprietary energy blend” be without stimulants?

Basically they are banking on the fact that you will be so overwhelmed by all their science-y sounding names that you won’t ask questions about their farty stimulants.

9. The fake flaw. Everyone knows that something that’s too good to be true usually is, right? We’ve been trained to look for a catch. So it’s become common to include a fake flaw in the product to make you think Oh, okay, now this all makes sense. This time it says, “So what’s the catch? The price. A 30-day  supply of XXX will cost you about $100…” So not only are they crazy expensive but they’re trying to tell you this is a good thing? Because you’re such a discerning little customer and of course you also know “You get what you pay for”. No cheap-o caffeine pills for you, no sir! You go for the top-shelf shiz.

10. Auto-ship hell. I went and checked out their website. First red flag: All it is is the exact same text as in the print ad. No links to anywhere, no additional info, not even an ingredient list!! (I found it through another site that had taken a picture of the side of the box.) Second-through-100 red flags: If you sign up for “auto-ship” – meaning that you hand over your credit card info and they bill you every month automatically – then you save a few bucks. Unfortunately, as has been demonstrated with countless other companies, this is usually an extortion tactic. It takes months and tons of effort to get the auto-ship (i.e. auto-charge) cancelled and in the meantime you are getting billed for product that you don’t want and might not even be getting anymore.

Bonus: If there really was a diet pill that worked, Oprah would have told us about it by now.

Any of you ever get sucked in by some slick advertising? What did you buy? (I’m just curious!) What’s the part you hate most about diet ads? Anything to add to my list?

*Not going to lie: I have some cognitive dissonance about this. I do feel a little squicky sometimes about writing an “article” that’s really a product demo/pitch – which is compounded by the fact that these advertorials are basically a blogger’s bread and butter. So after learning the hard way very early on in my blogging career when I wrote an advertorial for something that still makes me shudder, I’ve decided that I will only do these on two conditions: 1) It’s a product or company I actually use, love and feel good about sharing. I’m not going to rep a company/product that I have to lie about. 2) It’s blatantly stated at both the top and bottom of the post that it is sponsored.

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