You’ve almost certainly heard the phrase “dangling a carrot on a stick” before, usually in reference to something negative. This is because in modern times, the phrase typically conjures images of chasing something that’s right in front of your eyes, but that is essentially unobtainable. Despite this, the carrot looks awfully tasty, so you keep believing that if you take just a few more steps, you might catch it and your dreams will come true. And so, you keep trodding along, tripping and falling as you go, because you just can’t take your eyes off that dastardly carrot.
While this age-old idiom can refer to a lot of things, today we’re going to use it in the context of weight loss advertisements—more specifically, how weight loss advertisements are designed to persuade you to make hasty purchases, all while convincing you that you independently came to your own decision. Think of it like an advertising “Jedi mind trick.”
But why should you be skeptical of claims made by weight loss products in the first place? Because the number one complaint related to weight loss products, especially those that claim to give you 6-pack abs, a Brazilian booty, and arms of steel, all at the same time, is failure to work. Why? Because they’re not designed to work. Instead, they’re tailored to make you buy them, not to give you results. That’s why you’ll see the vast majority of these types of products with low customer reviews (2 stars or less), whether here on HighYa or other consumer review websites.
In fact, according to an FTC report going all the way back to 2002, “Nearly 40 percent of weight-loss advertisements in a study by U.S. regulators made at least one representation that was almost certainly false… and about 55 percent of the ads included at least one representation that was very likely to be false or lacked adequate substantiation of its promises.”
When it comes down to it though, false claims aside, it’s really all about psychology. What we mean is that, very similar to infomercials, most weight loss advertisements have been finely tuned based on decades of trial and error to convince you to buy their products. They know what you want to hear, and how you want to hear it. In other words, they know your buttons, and they know precisely what it takes to push them. So let’s find out how weight loss companies accomplish this.
The Art (and Science) of Persuasion
The point of weight loss advertisements, just like any other product or service, is to convince you to buy. And while the advertising industry often gets a bad rap, the truth is that there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to convince someone that they need a product. After all, they’re just filling a need.
However, the problem is that instead of informing potential customers, many less-than-stellar weight loss companies use their advertisements to specifically mislead them. This is often because, at least in the case of weight loss supplements, these companies are looking to create an inexpensive product that they can be sold at extraordinarily high profit margins, leaving their pockets fatter and their customers with products that don’t work, or in some instances, are downright dangerous.
We’ll discuss why this is in a moment, but first let’s take a look at the foundation of nearly any weight loss advertisement that you’ll come across.
Persuasive Techniques Used in Weight Loss Advertisements
Within the advertising industry, there are three main persuasive techniques used to sell products and services:
- Logos – An appeal to logic or reason. These types of weight loss ads are focused around providing you with information, usually in the form of clinical evidence or statistics. Example: Did you know that Drug X has helped more than 1 million people just like you to lose weight?
- Ethos – An appeal to credibility or character, often using experts or celebrities to endorse a product. Example: Dr. Oz recommends this new weight loss miracle in a bottle!
- Pathos (or Rhetoric) – An appeal to emotion. From empathy to anger, and everything in between. This is by far the most often used technique in weight loss ads, since companies understand that you’re already emotionally vulnerable because of your desperation to lose weight, and will use your emotions against you to convince you to buy. Example: Imagine the look on your friends’ faces when you show up 20 pounds lighter!
While all forms of advertising are intended to connect with consumers in one way or another, Pathos is generally considered “the most powerful tool in advertising” because emotions are what guide us, and this tactic connects directly with, or plugs directly into, our emotions. And when it comes down to it, while we might put up emotional defenses in order to prevent others from seeing our sadness or frustration related to our weight, our defenses are down when we’re sitting comfortably in our homes and a weight loss advertisement flashes across our computer monitor or stares at us from the pages of a magazine. It’s when we’re at our weakest that companies know we’re most likely to buy, so their advertisements (and their websites) are specifically structured to accomplish exactly this.
Let’s take a closer look.
Weight Loss Websites: A Minefield of Psychological Traps
Before we break down the psychological structure of some popular weight loss product websites, let’s talk about heatmaps. Heat what? Heatmaps, whether based on eye or mouse movements, is a visual representation of where a visitor’s eyes (or mouse) go when they land on a website. Areas shaded in red receive the most activity, while areas in blue receive the least. See below for an example:
Image credit: Berkeley.edu
Here’s why this is important: Heatmaps provide a great deal of insight where key sections of a sales website (also known as a landing page) should be located, with the primary goal of getting the highest number of visitors to make a purchase. For example, in the above image, notice how the red shaded areas are located in the upper left hand corner of the screen, the center portion of the upper section, and to the far right. In other words, these are the areas where visitors’ attention was most focused, and which probably helped them to make an immediate decision whether or not to stay on the page.
Using data like this, marketers then craft their websites to naturally flow with your eye’s path in order to keep you engaged and to convince you to buy. Let’s take a look at some examples of what we’re talking about:
Garcinia Cambogia 360 landing page
In the instance of Garcinia Cambogia 360, the first thing your eye is drawn to is a picture of an attractive woman in the upper left hand corner. She’s wearing a swimsuit, alluding to the fact that she’s fit, and she has a pleasant, joyful smile on her face, making her seem happy and at peace.
As our eye continues left along the top of the page, our attention is caught by the Garcinia Cambogia 360 logo, which, if you’ll refer back to the heatmap, is located in another red zone. As we keep moving left, we land on the “Tell Us Where to Send Your Trial Bottle” image, which is located in the third and final red zone. This works as a call to action, which is intended to “close the sale” and to convince you to make the purchase.
So, let’s put this all together. Within less than 5 seconds of landing on this web page, here’s the underlying message you’d be getting:
- This woman is beautiful and happy, and I want the same (Pathos) +
- Brand awareness; e.g. here’s how to get what you want (Pathos) +
- A “trial,” which immediately sounds inexpensive (Logos) =
- What have I got to lose?
Let’s take a closer look at another popular website.
Garcinia Cambogia GC180 XT landing page
Again, we first see that the image is of a good looking, in-shape woman with a big grin on her face in the upper left hand corner. Then, we find out that we can “burn fat and strip away pounds fast, even if we hate diet and exercise!” Finally, as we go all the way to the right of the screen, we’re again asked where we would like our trial bottle sent.
It’s essentially the exact same formula as the first example, just used by a different product from a different manufacturer. And it’s hard to resist. Just like the “dangling carrot” allusion we made at the beginning of this article, these manufacturers recognize that you probably think their claims are hyped up at best, or outright lies at worst. But they also know that the little voice in the back of your mind keeps asking, “What if this product is legitimate? What if this one will be my breakthrough, and will be the one to finally help me achieve my weight loss goals? Why am I being so pessimistic?”
While there’s nothing wrong with using psychology and heatmaps to increase product sales, there is a problem when these tactics are used to sell products intended to mislead consumers. But how do weight loss advertisements get away with being less than honest? Let’s take a look.
Why Do Weight Loss Ads Have a Tendency to Be So Misleading?
Here’s the zinger: Regardless of which persuasive technique a weight loss company uses, the fact of the matter is that many of their claims are overblown at best, and downright lies at worst. But how is this even legal?
Well, the reality is that weight loss supplements and other similar products aren’t subject to any oversight before they reach the store shelves. In fact, as we mentioned in our Complete Guide to Buying Nutritional Supplements, the Federal Trade Commission only steps in once a product garners enough complaints from consumers. Even then, it takes an extraordinary amount of time and money to move through the legal process, while the company behind the product can begin marketing it in a slightly different way to fly under the radar once again, and the process continues to repeat itself. We’ll talk more about this in a moment.
However, the good news is that the FTC is finally recognizing that false claims made by weight loss companies are becoming an epidemic, and is creating some high-profile buzz about the problem. As an example of this, the FTC founded Operation Failed Resolution in February of this year to combat some of the worst offenders in the industry. In this specific instance, the “sprinkle away the pounds” manufacturer of Sensa was the primary target of the FTC’s investigation, who was ultimately required to pay $26.5 million in a settlement.
But you know that the government doesn’t have the resources to police every new weight loss product that appears on the market, so what are some common sense methods you can use to prevent yourself from purchasing a fraudulent product?
What Can You Do to Avoid Being Fooled by a Weight Loss Ad?
As we mentioned in the previous section, weight loss supplements—which include vitamins and minerals, amino acids, enzymes, herbs, and animal extracts—are not reviewed by the FDA prior to being released, primarily because these types of products are classified as food substances and not as medications.
In fact, if a company wants to release a dietary supplement, they only need to follow one guideline; there should be strong evidence showing that the supplement can reduce the risk associated with a health condition, but the company cannot claim that the supplement can treat the condition. The key here is that the second half of the equation is met when the company simply includes the following disclaimer: “This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease." However, it’s assumed by the FDA that the company has proof these claims are true, but this isn’t required unless a company comes under investigation, which only happens if enough consumer complaints pile up.
Instead, immunizing yourself against weight loss advertisements is as easy as 1, 2, 3:
Step 1: Be Skeptical of Any Weight Loss Claims
Despite its lack of initial oversight within the supplements industry, the FTC flatly states that, “Without diet or exercise, any claims that a pill, patch, cream, or… powder will help you lose substantial weight are bogus.” In addition to this great piece of advice, according to the FTC’s Dietary Supplements page, if you see any of the following contained in a weight loss supplement ad, it should immediately raise a red flag:
Claims to treat or cure diseases, or to address a wide variety of conditions with just one pill.
Overblown and/or extraordinary claims: “Herbalife can help you lose 30 pounds in a month!”
Claims to help you lose anything more than a couple pounds without changing your diet or exercise habits.
Any of the following words or phrases: Scientific breakthrough, miraculous, exclusive, secret ingredient, or ancient remedy.
Use of scientific-sounding jargon to appear more credible. Some of the most common examples of this in weight loss ads are “thermogenesis” and “glucose metabolism.”
Undocumented testimonials from medical professionals or other customers, including outright fake reviews.
Autoship programs or money back guarantees.
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Step 2: Do Your Research
If the weight loss supplement or product you’re considering passes the first step above, the next step should be to find out as much as you can about the product, so that you can make a more informed purchasing decision.
To accomplish this, consumer advocacy websites like HighYa are absolutely indispensable, as are consumer organizations such as the Better Business Bureau and the National Consumers League, as well as independent websites like RipoffReport.com and ScamBusters.org. Also, if you’re specifically looking at supplements, we’ve found ConsumerLab.com to arguably be one of the best online resources you’ll find.
Finally, you should always leverage the services of some great governmental organizations like the Federal Trade Commission, which provides countless resources for spotting false website claims, and the National Institutes of Health PubMed, which can give you the ability to read clinical studies frequently referenced by weight loss products.
Step 3: Talk with Your Doctor
Since most consumers aren’t going to make an appointment with their doctor, take time out of their busy schedule to visit the office, and pay their insurance co-pay, all before deciding whether or not a weight loss product is worthwhile, it’s important to complete as much research as you can (see Step 2 above) beforehand.
Once you’ve performed your research though, the final—although most important—step is to talk with your doctor. This is for two primary reasons:
Effectively losing weight involves a complex set of conditions, including physical, emotional, and psychological. By knowing your medical history and speaking with you about your weight loss goals, you doctor might be able to recommend more effective methods of losing weight and keeping it off.
Your doctor has very likely already heard of the product, and might have a unique, medically-based perspective on whether or not it works, and what you can expect by using it.
The Road to Weight Loss Contains No Shortcuts
When it comes to weight loss, whether related to a product you saw in an advertisement or on store shelves, the bottom line is that there are no magic pills or “secret” formulas that can instantly make you lose weight. While some fad diets may help you temporarily lose weight, it’s highly likely you’ll regain it (and then some) within a matter of weeks or months.
In other words, although we’ve given you some actionable tips to help avoid spending your hard-earned money on products that don’t work, shedding pounds and keeping it off takes hard work, commitment, and a sometimes drastic change in lifestyle. And it can take an immense amount of effort to stay on the right path.