Advertising and the consumer's perception of their health
In 1993 the Food and Drug Administration reported that total sales of over-the-counter nutritional products had reached "several billion dollars" (Farley, 1994). With about 15% annual growth each year, the industry reached nearly 30 billion dollars per year on domestic sales alone by the end of 1999 (Kirikian, 2000). The increasing profit margin in this industry has brought more than 2,500 vitamin and related product manufacturers into the market, none of whom control more than 10% of it (Kirikian, 2000). With numerous companies joining this limited, although growing market, it creates fierce competition in which market penetration is strictly a result of aggressive advertising.
These persuasive advertisements attempting to convince consumers that the product of one particular company is better than that of another is often done through inaccurate or misleading information. Lesley Fair (2002) of the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Advertising Practices points out that the FDA has been fighting health fraud for over 75 years and one of the three main categories of this is economic fraud. Economic fraud is where products “for body improvements, such as diet products”, are promoted widely in the media with misleading information. Even though there’s been more than one hundred FTC cases involving this from 1950 to the present, there’s often “very complicated scientific and legal issues” that propose problems in controlling health claims. This is partially due to the involvement of lawyers, but more than that, “no one expects members of the media to conduct well-controlled, double-blind, clinical testing on every health claim that is made.” This opens the door for the thousands of misleading health claims influencing the market that have already slipped through on technicalities (Fair, 2002).
Regardless of what sociocultural cause is responsible, people have developed ideal physical characteristics and social pressures to achieve them. We’re constantly searching for something new that will allow us to achieve these ideal qualities. By nature, this presupposes either a lack of faith in the fundamentals of diet and exercise, or a misunderstanding of the capabilities of the human body. The manufacturers of nutritional products capitalize on these desirable characteristics and pressures to achieve them.
Although America’s demographics are getting older, the targeted audience of this advertising remains focused on consumers between ages of 18 and 49, as they represent the largest population of those most heavily impacted by common media (Fair, 2002). In a large randomly selected national survey by the American Dietetic Association, 38% of people felt that they were currently taking steps to improve their health. However, nearly every one of these people, and almost 75% of all people questioned, report that their primary source of information for health issues is television, followed by monthly published magazines (Rostler, 2002). This means that for the average consumer, practicing a health conscious lifestyle is following the information presented in television and magazines.
This gives effective advertisers the privilege to sway the knowledge base of the majority of all consumers under the impression that it's informative. This issue has continued to grow ever since it was recognized in the early 1970's, when it was suggested that "advertisements should be overtly recognized for what they are - an unabashed attempt to get someone to buy something, although some useful information may be provided in the process" (Ingelfinger, 1972). The same philosophy of advertisement is what dominates the common information base today, but executed more convincingly and effectively to remain profitable in the competitive market.
As the majority of Americans attribute their knowledge of health to television and magazine content, it’s understandable that the majority of misleading advertisements by diet and dietary supplement companies is found in those sources. An average of twenty six different nutritional supplement product advertisements can be found in each monthly publication of common health related magazines (Philen, Ortiz, Auerbach & Falk, 1992). This heavy advertising can dominantly influence the basis for the desired level of fitness, as well as set the foundation for the way we interpret the ability to achieve it. Popular media has published and broadcasted all forms of effective advertising in this field, giving the impression that the speed and ease of physical goals is as quick as the down payment.
It is this misunderstanding that the health industry continuously taps into, molding people’s common knowledge to believe that physiological adaptations occur at a pace greater than that which is definitively possible. This seems to be direct result of the marketing tactics of the producers of health products, supplements, and nutritional and dieting regimens (Schneeman, 2002). The marketing tactics creating this illusion are the same misleading advertisements, yet progressively growing more technical in order to parallel the constant increasing knowledge and awareness of the targeted consumers (Weinberg, et al, 2002).
A highly successful company executive defined advertising in its purest form, explaining "we want to identify the emotions we can tap into to get that customer to take the desired course of action" (Ross & McCarren, 1999). Regardless of what tactics are utilized, the focus is strictly attracting consumer appeal.
With little understanding of diet and supplementation in the general public, these faulty representations of reality seem attainable. Time after time, we're presented with the visual evidence that appears as though a thirty year old male with an office job turned into a contest-ready bodybuilder in a matter of weeks. These advertisements have been specifically designed to appeal to that particular crowd with emotional appeal (Wolfe, 2002) as they represent the majority of those subject to the advertisements who are both willing to pay and able to afford the cost of the product.
Like most industries, that of diet and supplementation follows money. The world of health is multi-billion dollar industry based in this visual credibility that seems to have difficulty differentiating between the contours of the bicep, and the capacity for knowledge of the human body. The information that has created this unreliable body of knowledge continually coerces others to utilize more tactical and misleading implications to maintain the financial obligation of attracting a portion of the growing business. This causes numerous sources of information to become tainted with poorly conducted studies and "clinical research", published testimonials and sponsorship providing a publisher's income.
This lucrative tunnel vision is displayed best through the marketing tactics of companies in the dietary supplement industry. Skipping athletic trainers, dietitians, nutritionists, and other health professionals, they focus on direct-to-consumer advertising through the most popular media to amplify misdirection. As the targeted consumers have very little knowledge on the true effects of these products, it gives the idea that changes in the body occur to such a rapid extent that physical goals are attainable from the course of one paycheck to the next. The nutritional supplement industry is often representative of the pinnacle of what creates the skewed image of the body's measurable physical responsiveness. With a very loosely governed status from the FDA, the supplement industry is granted the ability to sacrifice integrity for greater income.
The FDA primarily exercises their control with consumer warnings rather than market intervention. FDA Commissioner, David Kessler, defines the FDA's goal as wanting to "assure consumers that claims made about health and nutritional benefits are truthful" and recommending consumers to "be wary of unfounded medical claims for dietary supplements" (Farley, 1994). However, the extent of this intrusion is pinning a phrase on supplement labels after every claim that reads, "Statement not evaluated by the FDA." This is the maximal involvement of the FDA on supplements without drug-related claims (Farley, 1994).
With these very broad boundaries, companies can release fundamentally any product with virtually no limits to their marketing claims. Joe Weider, one of the earliest producers of sports supplements, took full advantage of this, and in his time, controlled the majority of the industry. He initially set the progressive path of misleading advertisements by gathering up every willing bodybuilder and giving them free supplements, and in return they would allow Weider to lay quotes onto their pictures. These were created testimonials along the lines of "I owe everything to this product" (Kane, 2002). Although these bodybuilders hadn’t the knowledge of what it was that they were advertising, those who the advertisements appealed to were given new faith in rapid physiological responsiveness.
It mattered not that the same products already existed. Vitamins and soy were not new scientific breakthroughs or medical advancements, but rather marketed as such in the realm of weight gainers, meal replacements, strength enhances, weight loss formulas, and anything else that would sell. With the growth of the industry, and the addition of new manufacturers, competition further heightened the promotional devices used to make their product seem more attractive. This competition has since worked as the catalyst to create a worldly accepted understanding of the physiological capabilities of the human body, slightly outside of the truth, but convincingly portrayed.
As competition grew, many companies began creating their stable position as an economic contender by lacing products with anabolic steroids or dangerous, illegal weight loss compounds (Kane, 2002). They use this tactic to create initial popularity, as their first batch of a selected product would without question maximize the production of results that would otherwise be unattainable. This marketing scheme falls directly on the consumer, relying on testimonials to create the hype for a rapid jump in demand. As soon as this happens, the company releases mass quantities of the product, without the illegal substances. The extent of the effectiveness of the product is sacrificed, but the still existent hype and the continuation of the placebo effect allows the product to continue selling for an extended time. Met-Rx is the most famous example of utilizing this strategy with the addition of Clenbuterol to their first batch of protein powder (Kane, 2002).
Another very similar approach that's been utilized in the past by Hot Stuff, as well as other successful products, is to ensure that the substances cannot be detected in the tests utilized. In the case of Hot Stuff, the undetectable substance was methyltestosterone (Kane, 2002). In both of these scenarios, the advertisements are of a natural product, and testimonials cause a rapid gain in popularity which furthers the belief that the pace of attaining physical goals can match the quickness the company gets paid.
Every contender in the industry to date has followed the trend of economy first, consumer second, whether it’s done legally or illegally. Another marketing route that shows this came in the form of utilizing stimulants so that the consumer will "feel" the supplement working. Again, as the targeted consumer hasn't the knowledge to believe any differently, that feel sells the product. This set the stimulant trend itself into course, with products like Ultimate Orange, the most popular supplement of that genre, which is based on an ephedra and caffeine stack. Studies have shown relation to ephedra products in numerous reports of cardiovascular symptoms, and that of the central nervous system, including hyperteinsion, palpations, tachycardia, strokes, and seizures. 26% of these cases resulted in permanent disability or death (Haller, Benowitz, 2000).
Since these reports, ephedra based products have grown yet more popular with weight loss and energy formulas through effective promotion. This sidesteps the consumer's health and well being in order to create a foundation of consumer interest. The advertisements responsible for this capitalize on the desirable image of the body without interaction of values, which eliminates the ability for moral opposition to the advertisement or product. All that is then in turn understood from the message, is a new understanding of one's own body, and faith in a new artifact. The product of this, is hype.
Today, hype remains one the fundamental effective advertisement tactics utilized from every angle of health and fitness. Diets, drugs, supplements, exercise programs, and any new information can be hyped as an incredible new medical advancement. Weight loss formulas have become more popular than ever, claimed by the manufacturers to be result of new scientific and medical advancements. However, the FDA has found only two ingredients to be safe and effective and they’ve declared more than one hundred fifty ingredients ineffective, some of which account for billions of dollars spent each year by consumers persuaded into the industry (Fair, 2002).
Advertising and hype have created the most successful names in the history of the supplement industry. Bill Phillips began this hype-trend with phrases like "clinical research" and picturing every new product in front of a line of men in white medical robes. This creates undeserving trust each product released due to the undeniable trust in the medical field by the general public. A problem this can propose, however, is that the "research" and "discoveries" are strictly based on an economic agenda, and can be manipulated to show varying positions. But with its presentation, these advertisements draw attention, not to the source of income, but to the new "medical and miracle breakthrough" (Smith, 1992).
These phrases worked so effectively that now seemingly every product taps into that resource. Again, as competition grew, so did the will to attract more attention. The next popular form of convincing and misleading advertisements came in the form of before and after pictures. These add a visual level of believability to every claim because people believe that something has to work to get them from the one picture to the next. However, even if the two pictures are the same person, they’re often taken only a matter of hours apart, showing the two extremes one professional can resemble in the span of a day, or they’re taken in the reverse order, showing only how to go from one picture to the previous. It's mostly done with lighting, tan cream, a razor, positioning, an airbrush, and a smile. The farther the shoulders are pulled back and gut pressed out in the first picture, the greater the effect of the supplement, the advertisement, and therefore the creation of the myth of physiological change.
Beyond visually stimulating advertisements and misleading medical and scientific associations, the minimal information provided generally resembles personal success stories. These add believability to any claim, because "if they can do it, then so can I." Changes in total bodyweight, bodyfat percent, and lean body mass are the three most common measurements quantified for the purpose of advertisement. The health magazines frequently publish information about somebody losing somewhere in the range of 15lb off their total bodyweight, dropping 9% bodyfat, and increasing lean body mass by 10lb due to some particular product or another (Flex, 2002). These numbers seem precise and concrete, but lack validity. Being as the testing procedures are never published, there's no proof that these numbers weren't entirely made up or tested by an administrator with an agenda, utilizing "physical error" to create lavish differences in pretest and post test results.
Even in the doubtful scenario that these numbers were completely accurate, correlation does not imply causation. There's no way to definitively label any one particular cause to any physiological changes, as there is always a large number of causes working synergistically to produce those numbers. It's been shown numerous times that one's bodyweight can naturally fluctuate as much as 5lb during the course of a single day in pure water weight (Hipps, 2002), and bodyfat percent is calculated in relation to total bodyweight, and lean body mass is simply an equation of the first two. But regardless, those numbers appeal to the emotion of a targeted population, for economic reasons, generally through the specific individual used (Wolfe SM, 2002).
Wherever the market succeeds, advertisements will follow. The purpose of product advertising, according to Canadian economist Stephen Leacock, is "the science of arresting human intelligence long enough to get money from it." Misleading advertisements are successful, and as Lecock points out, "superior to reality" in terms of profitable incentives. Because of this, financial success does not lead advertising into a realm that the consumer understands, but rather creates a new understanding that the consumer can follow. This new foundation of knowledge, although not necessarily entirely accurate, is maintained through the constant financial returns maintaining the constancy of misleading promotion.
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