Advertising the health benefits of a product like pomegranate juice is one thing, but when you start claiming that it can reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease and impotence you'd better have the scientific data to back it up. This is a lesson that Pom Wonderful recently learned the hard way when a federal judge ordered the company to halt its current advertising campaign after finding that it lacked sufficient evidence to support any of its juice's purported benefits.
However, while POM Wonderful may be the latest company in the health industry to be convicted of misleading its customers, it certainly isn't the guiltiest. Since the dawn of civilization, product pushers have inflated the medical benefits of their products to woo the self-conscious and the hypochondriacal. For instance, here are five recent examples of egregiously misleading health and fitness ads.
Reebok's EasyTone Shoes
In 2009 and 2010, Reebok ran a series of ads for its EasyTone and RunTone shoes featuring lithe and toned models professing the benefits of the footwear's special toning soles. The ads claimed that laboratory tests had found that Tone shoes were "proven to work your hamstrings and calves up to 11% harder and tone your butt up to 28% more than regular sneakers … just by walking!" Apparently, the special uneven sole of the shoe forced you to use more muscles when you moved. The LA Times reported that an FTC investigation found the only thing that EasyTone shoes actually did was make it uncomfortable to walk. As a result, Reebok was forced to refund more than $25 million in purchases.
Airborne Herbal Supplement
For a while, Airborne seemed like a classic American success story. The result of a second grade teacher's research, the herbal supplement became a national phenomenon after it appeared to finally provide the cure/prevention for the common cold that science had yet to figure out. For 10 years it reigned as the leading cold prevention supplement on the market - and then the FTC got interested. According to npr.org, a federal investigation found that the anecdotal benefits of Airborne were just another example of the placebo effect. In reality, the tablets did absolutely nothing to boost the immune system or prevent colds. This incited a class-action lawsuit against the company that Airborne finally settled in 2008 for $23.3 million.
Dannon Activia Yogurt
Jamie Lee Curtis might be enthusiastic about the health benefits of Dannon's Activia line of yogurts, but the FTC isn't. In 2009, a federal judge found that Dannon's claims that a daily serving of Activia would relieve irregularity and help expedite the digestion process were totally unsubstantiated. It turned out the company had been charging a 30% premium on the "probiotic" yogurts over other brands when in reality the contents in the cups were all the same. As a result, the company was forced to pay out $35 million to consumers in a 2009 class-action lawsuit and another $21 million to the FTC a year later, as reported by ABC News.
"Male enhancement" products are a dime-a-dozen these days, but none have enjoyed as much success as Extenze. Manufactured by California-based Biotab Nutraceuticals, the little purple pill has been a staple of late-night television ads with its innocuous theme song and pep talks by NFL personality and former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson. According to the National Council Against Health Fraud, in a ruling that surprised nobody, the Orange County District Attorney's office found in 2010 that Biotab completely fabricated all of its scientific and clinical evidence regarding the "enhancive capabilities" of Extenze. Biotab was forced to pay out $6 million in damages and offer another $6 million in Extenze Racing merchandise as a refund to its customers.
The Bottom Line
Looking at the amount of misleading advertisements that pervade modern media, consumers should be wary any time they hear that a product is "scientifically proven" to work. Unless the advertiser specifically states that its claims have been validated by the FDA, there's no reason to trust any purported medical benefits of any piece of merchandise, whether it's shoes or cold medicine. Often, these health and fitness products are just modern interpretations of the snake oil that bankrupted early settlers in the Wild West. So the next time you're tempted to buy a product that looks too good to be true, just save your money – because it probably is.