Billboard companies Clear Channel Outdoor Inc. and Lamar Advertising… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)
Advertisements for Lap-Band weight-loss surgery with that catchy telephone number, 1-800-GET-THIN, have quietly been pulled off roadside billboards across Southern California.
Billboard companies Clear Channel Outdoor Inc. and Lamar Advertising Co. confirmed that marketing firm 1-800-GET-THIN has let its contracts with them expire. If the ads do not return, it would mark the end to one of Southern California's most aggressive medical advertising campaigns — one marked by controversy.
The Food and Drug Administration and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors have expressed concern about the ad campaign and its affiliated surgery centers. The FDA said the ads violated federal law because they did not include adequate warnings about the surgery's risks.
Five Southern California patients have died since 2009 after Lap-Band surgeries at clinics affiliated with 1-800-GET-THIN, according to lawsuits, autopsy reports and other public records.
Allergan Inc., the Irvine maker of the Lap-Band, said in February that it would no longer sell the device to clinics affiliated with the marketing company.
An attorney for 1-800-GET-THIN did not respond to a request for an interview. The Times called 1-800-GET-THIN and left a message seeking comment, but no one responded.
A few 1-800-GET-THIN billboard ads remain up with a third company, CBS Outdoor, which declined to comment.
Betsy Merryman, who runs a public relations firm and teaches medical marketing classes at USC and UCLA, said the advertising campaign was one of the most aggressive she's seen. Besides billboards, there was a major presence on television, radio, the Internet and MTA buses.
"Their use of billboards particularly were what I always heard comments on," Merryman said. "Even when I had colleagues visiting from out of town, I heard comments about how they saw billboard after billboard after billboard.
"Even my 9-year-old son is familiar with the TV ads," she said. "He sang the jingle to me. That is unusual that even a kid recalls the campaign. It's so aggressive and broadly targeted."
A stretch of the 710 Freeway that once included numerous 1-800-GET-THIN billboards is now lined with ads for such things as a $799 divorce or bankruptcy, a Signal Hill strip club and the McDonald's Egg McMuffin, as well as a new billboard warning consumers that drinking "sugar-loaded" sodas can lead to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Clear Channel and Lamar said 1-800-GET-THIN billboards were removed recently.
"A few weeks ago, [1-800-GET-THIN] requested for us to take them down," said Ray Baker, vice president and general manager at Lamar. "Their contract expired and they did not renew."
Clear Channel spokesman Jim Cullinan said: "The advertiser in question does not have any advertising on our billboards, and that's been the case since their contract ended at the end of 2011."
Kathryn Trepinski, an attorney for relatives of a woman who died after Lap-Band surgery at a Beverly Hills clinic affiliated with the ad campaign, said she's happy the billboards are down.
"They're glaring by their absence," Trepinski said. "You couldn't drive a couple miles without seeing the billboards, a sign on a bus or a bench. It was a very powerful and seductive campaign."
The Lap-Band is a silicone ring that is surgically implanted around the stomach to limit food intake and help patients lose weight. Allergan was not involved in the 1-800-GET-THIN advertising and did not support the massive marketing campaign.
Many surgeons still offer Lap-Band surgeries, some finding clients through billboard advertising. On the stretch of the 710 Freeway once dominated by 1-800-GET-THIN ads is a billboard advertising a website, LapbandVIP.com, with a photograph of a smiling woman and the phrase, "Tiffany lost over 100 pounds."
Shayla Reed, general manager and marketing director for LapbandVIP.com, said the company markets weight-loss procedures for four bariatric surgeons and has no connection with 1-800-GET-THIN. It has about 15 billboard ads throughout Southern California, she said.