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FTC Sues Maker of Body Solutions

Mark Nutritionals is accused of using false claims in the marketing of its weight-loss formula.

December 06, 2002|Ronald D. White and Robert Patrick | Times Staff Writers

Government regulators Thursday sought to slim down the amazing claims for a popular weight-loss formula called Body Solutions by suing the marketer of the product for deceptive advertising.

The Federal Trade Commission and two states, Texas and Illinois, sued Mark Nutritionals Inc. and its officers for the company's "false and unsubstantiated" claims that its products would produce weight loss without diet or exercise.

Mark Nutritionals blanketed the nation's radio waves -- including KFWB-AM (980) and KNX-AM (1070) in Los Angeles -- with weight-loss ads using the familiar and persuasive voices of local radio personalities.

The company booked more than $190 million in sales since 1999, the FTC said, by claiming that its Body Solutions Evening Weight Loss Formula bedtime drink would burn away fat while people slept, and that consumers could keep eating pizza, tacos, nachos and doughnuts.

"They are claims that from a scientific perspective are not possible," said the chief of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, J. Howard Beales.

In one ad cited by the FTC, a voice intones: "It helped me lose 36 pounds and it helps me maintain through the holidays. I mean, I ate so much over Thanksgiving, I still have turkey burps. But thanks to Body Solutions, I keep the weight off and now I'm ready for Christmas."

Beales said he expects a federal judge to sign an order requiring Mark Nutritionals to remove the words "weight loss" from the name of its product.

Mark Nutritionals filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September.

The company said Thursday that it agreed to change its ads to address the FTC's concerns. "We are moving forward with a new way to promote and advertise our product," said Mark Nutritionals' acting chief executive, Larry Cochran. The FTC suit was filed in U.S. District Court in San Antonio. The company denied that it broke any laws.

At KFWB, newscaster Ron Kilgore was the voice of the advertisements until the station stopped airing them in the spring, said general manager Roger Nadel. Kilgore left the station in August for another job.

At KNX, traffic reporter Pat Haslam used to pitch Body Solutions until about four months ago, said General Manager George Nicholaw. He noted that he didn't think it was inappropriate for a traffic reporter to have recorded the ads.

Infinity Broadcasting, the parent of both KNX and KFWB, filed a $9-million lawsuit against Mark Nutritionals in September, claiming that some of its stations hadn't been paid for ads dating back to December 2001. Infinity is owned by Viacom Inc.

The FTC said in the last decade many ads have become more misleading in their claims, and the agency implored media outlets to do more to protect the public by policing pitches.

David Heber, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, said advertising standards are too lenient -- particularly for radio and TV infomercials.

Nutrition experts say between 50 million and 70 million Americans are trying to lose weight. Obesity has become the second leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., behind smoking. In turn, a $30-billion-a-year weight-loss industry has emerged.

Most experts agree that losing a pound or a pound and a half of weight a week is a reasonable goal that can be reached by moderately reducing food intake and regularly doing light exercise.

Bonnie Jortberg, program director of the University of Colorado's weight-loss program, said the Body Solutions ads were so convincing in part because they used familiar radio voices that consumers had come to trust.

In all, Mark Nutritionals peddled its products through testimonial endorsements from disc jockeys on more than 650 radio stations in 110 cities across the country. "With radio, there's also no visible evidence," Jortberg said. "No one really sees these people."

The Body Solutions ads, added Jortberg, "really play off the American passion for a quick fix. It just sounds great. Poof, there go the pounds."

Freelance writer Steve Carney contributed to this report.

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