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Flying Monkeys —

July 3, 2014

Team Gnomercy

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Weight LossFat HealthFat NewsDickweedDiet Talk

Trigger warning: Discussion of weight loss product and before and after photos.

Last week, I spent so much time gloating over the public humiliation of Dr. Oz that I ran out of space to share an interesting connection between that hearing and a recent interview I conducted. In John Oliver’s take down of the unsubstantiated supplements, he pointed out that Oz is just a symptom of the problem. “The disease is that dietary supplements in the U.S. are shockingly unregulated.”

I agree, but I’m not quite ready to let Dr. Oz off the hook that easily. Yes, a dysfunctional regulatory system is to blame for the profitability of sham supplements, but Dr. Oz has been the mouthpiece for a million “miracles,” and when he promotes acai berry or yacon syrup or raspberry ketones or garcinia cambogia, he’s basically setting up supplement manufacturers to prey on those desperate enough to believe him.

Like the Wicked Witch, whether he intends to or not, Dr. Oz dispatches his minions to sew chaos and confusion among consumers every time he sings the “belly busting” properties of one superfood or another.

Oz and Monkey

“Yeeeeesss, I see a big market for powdered rhinoceros taint. Fly my pretties!”

But I doubt that increasing the amount of goji berries in your diet will do you any more good than increasing the amount of blueberries in your diet. The whole point of the health properties of fruit is just that you eat the fucking fruit. You don’t need to import some weirdass vegetation from halfway across the world just to eat healthy.

Now, it’s true that even without Dr. Oz, supplement manufacturers would still be doing harm on their own, much like wild flying monkeys might. But the daytime endorsement gives those flying monkeys a direction to go and legitimizes them — although to most, the slick pitch is about as persuasive as dressing psychopathic primates in coats and hats.

So who do we have on our side fighting the circling hordes? John Oliver points to two agencies: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). For all intents and purposes, the FDA has no jurisdiction over supplements.

This leaves the FTC to wage a never-ending battle against dishonest manufacturers willing to say and do anything to push untested, unregulated products on a gullible, desperate public. The first FTC lawsuit goes back to 1927 against a McGowan’s Reducine cream, advertised in True Romance magazine:

When applied “gently onto the parts of the human body which the purchaser desires to slenderize,” the ads explained, “a harmless chemical reaction takes place during which the excess fat is literally dissolved away, leaving the figure slim and properly rounded, giving the lithe grace to the body every man and woman desires.”

But since then, the FTC has only settled 250 lawsuits. To be sure, the FTC has a robust regulatory framework which allows it to prosecute fraudulent claims made by unscrupulous companies, and occasionally there are high profile cases like its recent $26.5 million settlement with Sensa and Leanspa. But the diet monkeys are so prolific and the claims so ubiquitous that the FTC struggles keep up.

Engle

Mary Koelbel Engle testifies before the Senate.

Part of the problem is that the FTC is notoriously underfunded and understaffed, with a paltry $300 million budget to not only regulate the weight loss advertising, but fight all consumer fraud, prevent anticompetitive business practices, maintain our country’s Do-Not-Call list, and prevent dubious websites from charging you $30 to not be labeled a jerk, along with many other vital mandates. When you compare the FTC’s paltry budget to the $134 billion diet industry, you can see how difficult the FTC’s job is to squealch the latest and greatest scams.

So when Dr. Oz went to Capitol Hill two weeks ago, he sat beside Mary Koelbel Engle, Associate Director for the Division of Advertising Practices at the FTC. Engle chided Oz’s influence on impressionable viewers, saying “Where there is strong consumer interest, fraud often follows.” She also mentioned that according to a 2011 FTC survey, “More consumers were victims of fraudulent weight loss products than any of the other specific frauds that we surveyed.”

When McCaskill asked why the FTC didn’t force the media to stop airing the ads, Engle pointed out the First Amendment problem. As a result, Engle explained, the FTC relies on the media to “serve as a front-line defense, halting false claims before they run — and before people risk their money and maybe even their health on a worthless product.” Of course, we all know how willing companies are to self-regulate when they’re being offered cold hard cash to look the other way.

It’s all thanks to this dysfunctional regulatory framework — a deliberately-weakened agency that must “trust” the industry it’s tasked to regulate — that I came to learn all about Final Trim and AFPlus, two weight loss supplements manufactured by Direct Alternatives and advertised frequently on St. Louis radio stations. Back in February, I wrote about the commercials at length, dissecting the ads and the recorded message at the 800 numbered advertised. Then I documented my attempt to get proof of the ad claims from Direct Alternatives, speaking to a customer service rep, a customer service manager, and Lawrence, the executive assistant to Anthony Dill, owner of Direct Alternatives.

Lawrence insisted that I snail mail him my questions, which I sent along with a self-addressed stamped envelope and a kiss for good luck. Obviously, I never got anything back. I also mentioned in my last post that I would reach out to the FTC to see if I could get someone to answer my questions, and guess who I spoke to… Mary Koelbel Engle.

The other interesting connection between this recent hearing and Direct Alternatives is that Dr. Oz has promoted both “miracles” that supposedly make Final Trim and AFPlus so potent: konjac root and acai berry, respectively. Back in 2009, Dr. Oz and Oprah filed multiple lawsuits against companies that used their likenesses  to promote acai online after he made a big fuss about it on her show. You would think that would’ve taught him the natural consequences of promoting miracle produce. You’d be wrong.

Back in 2012, Dr. Oz took to calling konjac root “nature’s skinny sponge.” Why? “[B]ecause it literally soaks up your hunger.” He even went so far as to promote konjac in supplement form: “For convenience, you can also take this appetite suppressant in capsule form. Take 1 gram, three times a day before meals.”

Can anyone truly say they’re shocked when the monkeys swoop in?

Voice of Reason

When I spoke to Engle, I asked what recourse consumers have when confronted by fraudulent claims in advertising. She said to contact both the Better Business Bureau and the FTC via the Complaint Assistant. If you report a company to the BBB, they will funnel most of those to the FTC, but it’s best to contact both.

When researching Direct Alternatives, I found plenty of BBB complaints about fraudulent billing practices (charging customers before the “free trial” ended) which had been resolved. I asked whether the resolution on BBB affected the FTC’s decision to prosecute a company.

“In our experience, some companies make it a point of resolving complaints so that they can keep a good BBB rating,” Engle said. “That doesn’t mean that people aren’t being deceived in the first instance. It just can be another kind of issue that might be an element of our case.”

Engle explained that in order for a product to be “proven,” Direct Alternatives would need evidence that would be “appropriate to prove to a scientist in the relevant field, to an expert in the relevant field, that the product works as claim.” The company is under no obligation to provide proof to their customers. But according to Engle, the FTC has “the ability to compel the production of that information. And they’re legally bound to have substantiation for the claims they make at the time they make the claims.”

The FTC weighs claims being made in an ad as a “net impression” made on the average consumer. For example, if a company uses mainly testimonials from people who have lost 30 pounds or more, then the net impression is that the average user will lose 30 pounds or more.

“We did some consumer research that showed that consumers thought that what the testimonialists were achieving was what the typical user could achieve,” Engle explained. “So we say that advertisers have to be able to substantiate that the results achieved by the testimonialists is representative of what users generally can achieve with the product.” If the testimonialist is an outlier, then the advertiser is supposed to state “clearly and prominently what the average or typical results were.”

Something that bugged me was that the FTC’s literature repeatedly cites this standard that the disclaimer must be displayed “clearly and prominently,” but look at any print weight loss ad and you see the disclaimer is tiny and tucked in a corner. Why is this allowed to happen?

“It’s the same reason there’s still all these bogus weight loss ads out there,” Engle said with a laugh. “We simply don’t have the resources to pursue all these deceptive ads. You can see there are so many problematic weight loss ads out there. There’s a huge market for this kind of product and it is a priority for us and it’s been a priority for us for the 20-odd years I’ve been at the FTC.”

Engle said they’ve been calling attention to the problem for years, giving speeches and presentations harping on the importance of proper disclaimers. “If you’re going to use a disclosure it has to be clear and prominent because otherwise it will be ineffective, and if it’s ineffective, and you needed that disclosure to prevent your ad from being deceptive, then that means your ad is deceptive.”

Something striking about the ads for Final Trim and AFPlus is that there is no disclaimer whatsoever. It’s just the pitch, an 800 number, and done. I asked if there was an exemption for radio since space was limited.

“Radio ads are not exempt,” Engle said. “All advertisements, regardless of medium, are subject to the same requirements. Never would there be an exemption or allowance of an ineffective disclaimer. The issue is the ad has to be nondeceptive standing on its own. If you don’t have the time or the space to put in an effective disclaimer, then you need to change your claim so it doesn’t need a disclaimer.”

Interestingly, Final Trim doesn’t use testimonialists. Instead, it says that its product is for a particular demographic: “You must be a man between the ages of 35 and 65, and need to lose at least 30 pounds.” Does this give the same net impression as using a testimonialist who lost 30 pounds?

“Oh sure, definitely,” Engle said. “That would imply that you can lose at least 30 pounds with that product.”

So Direct Alternatives now has two strikes against it, according to Engle: an outlier claim and zero disclaimer. But there’s a third issue that seems to be the King of Fraudulent Claims for the FTC: eat all the foods you love and STILL lose weight.

Engle said this claim can get complicated. “If the ad claims you can lose weight no matter how much you eat, that is likely to be a false claim,” she explained. “The issue is, if you had a legitimate appetite suppressant. Let’s say you’re still eating some brownies and pizza, but very small amounts because you just don’t have the appetite, then it’s potentially true that there’s a substantiated claim there.”

Direct Alternatives knows how to walk that legalese tightrope, claiming that with AFPlus “you can keep eating your favorite foods and still lose pounds and inches.” But then, I said to Engle, the company would have to prove its product is an actual appetite suppressant.

“And that it works effectively,” Engle agreed. “We don’t just eat when we’re hungry, we eat for all sorts of reasons. We eat because we’re upset, because we’re nervous, because we’re happy. We’re emotional eaters. Even if you could have an appetite suppressant, it doesn’t mean that people would stop eating when they’re not hungry if you’re eating for other reasons. And that’s why that is a problematic claim.”

The only question I have left is whether the FTC will take action against this obviously-fraudulent company. Although I can’t disclose anything at this point due to the FTC keeping a tight wrap on its investigations, what I can say for sure is that Direct Alternatives is now on the FTC’s radar and that if any developments take place, I will share them here. FTC investigations can take years to resolve, so until then I am planning to sit back and let the process run its course, confident that justice will ultimately prevail.

The Monkeys

Which brings me to the final piece of the puzzle. Who are the charlatans behind the fraud?

Flying Monkey

Anthony Dill in his natural habitat.

Direct Alternatives is a family-run business with Anthony Dill being the founder and owner, while his wife Staci serves as Creative Director, which I’m sure is in no way at all just an honorific title granted for tax purposes.

But lest you think the Dills are only in the business of ripping off fatties, you can rest assured that they have a whole line of pseudo-pharameceuticals aimed at gullible people with low self-esteem, all sold under the brand of Original Organics. For instance, if you’re a man who can’t get it up, Direct Alternatives has an herbal boner pill just for you. Or as they put it, the “powerful, all natural sexual performance enhancer.”

Bravado Clean

I mean, just look at that photo… it’s the poor woman who’s exhausted from all the nonstop sexy time, while the man is trying to persuade her to wake up so he can get his multiple orgasm on. Now THAT’S an effective boner pill.

My favorite part is when they tell you all the wonderful things Bravado can do.

 

Bravado

The best part about Bravado (from the perspective of Direct Alternatives) is that unlike diet pills, any dissatisfied boner pill customers are less likely to raise a stink about their shitty product.

Apart from herbal supplements, the Dills are also in the liquor business. Turns out, Anthony is also Vice President for Northern Maine Distilling Company, which promotes its own vodka brand, Twenty 2 vodka. It seems that Dill also tried his own hand at distilling, but eventually abandoned his failed Black Duck brand. Now if only Direct Alternatives could develop a pill to end alcoholism they’d have all their bases covered!

Finally, Dill founded — surprise surprise — an advertising company called Mainestream Media in 2001, the same year he founded Direct Alternatives. But I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

What was really fun to learn is Anthony’s political leanings. Being a millionaire, of course he’s a Republican who whines about the treatment of the rich.

Whining About the Rich

Not only that, this particular brand of douchebag has the audacity to find a way to conflate the death of Nelson Mandela with Benghazi.

Mandela Benghazi

Then there’s the irony of a weight loss fraudster spreading memes about thieving Democrats:

Irony

And, of course, he’s a Birther.

Birther

But what’s most entertaining is to see the high hopes that Anthony had in a Mitt Romney victory.

Romney Will Win

Something tells me that Anthony Dill is the kind of person who vehemently opposes a robust, well-funded, adequately-staffed FTC. Just a hunch.

So I bet you’re wondering what these delightful douchebags look like. Well, it’s in no way ironic.

Staci and Anthony Dill with Brandon Flowers of The Killers.

Staci and Anthony Dill with Brandon Flowers of The Killers.

Oh look, they’re fatties.

Now, they aren’t superfatties, to be sure, but they are fat enough that it makes you wonder if they’re popping their own pills. I mean, here are two recent examples of weight loss “success stories” that Huffington Post featured.

And here’s Anthony Dill.

Anthony Dill Direct Alternatives

Meanwhile, here’s a female weight loss story…

… and here’s Staci Dill.

Stacy Dill Direct Alternatives

Obviously, I personally don’t think either of the Dills need to lose weight. They get to decide what they do with their bodies. I just find it the height of irony that the people behind a fraudulent ad aimed at  people who “need to lose at least 30 pounds” are themselves fat enough to qualify as one of HuffPo’s before photos. And these weight loss hucksters aren’t just ironically fat, their Facebook pages are odes of joy to the most decadent of foods. Take, for instance, this photo of fries drenched with cheese curds and gravy.

Bacon Cheese Curds and Gravy

That’s just one photo in an orgy of food on their walls.

Orgy of Food

Methinks the effort put into developing and shilling weight loss placebos is somehow a projection of their own insecurities over their hedonistic lifestyles. Of course, that then raises the question of whether Anthony developed Bravado out of desperation…

By sharing all of this personal information, I hope to shed a little light on one pair skeevy asswipes who are responsible for just one of the many, MANY weight loss scams out there. Typically, these people get to hide behind slick commercials and walls of legal entities, but when you peel back the layers you find out just how hypocritical and terrible they really are — something you probably could have guessed based solely on the fact that they profit off the insecurities of others.

My hope is that the FTC drops the hammer on these assholes and hurts them in the only place where they still have a conscience: they’re bank vault.

Until then, these sick monkeys will keep circling overhead, looking for easy prey to pick off with their fly-by-night schemes and unsubstantiated claims. I only wish their dissolution were as easy as throwing a bucket of water on Dr. Oz.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 3, 2014 1:29 pm

    Ooooooh this makes me burn…….I really hate hypocrisy. How is is possible that not one fat hater has outed them with fat hating outrage like “boy, u sure could use some of your product, or take some of your own advice…”etc? I mean here are two people who should be called on the carpet for bullshitting people, and they happen to be fatter than they “should be” and seem to be cruising away unscathed! Thanks for purring this out in the open!

  2. Dizzyd permalink
    July 5, 2014 2:50 pm

    Yeah, I agree with Dr. Deah – how come the haters aren’t on their website roasting THEM for their hypocrisy? Oh, wait… maybe cuz they’re a bunch of hypocrites themselves. After all, if they’re all about the weight loss, aren’t the Dills being the “good little fatties” that haters demand we all be to please them?

    • Dizzyd permalink
      December 9, 2014 10:30 am

      BTW, is it me or do those “after” pics look absolutely frightening? Especially Randy’s. Allie’s makes her look like she’s out of it.

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