Miracle-Diet Ads Lie? Well, Duh!

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Don't get me wrong: if I worked for the government, I'd be wasting money like a madman. I'd head a commission to investigate the safety of Kobe beef, bring back a one-man Meese commission and make myself ambassador to Angelina Jolie.

But I wouldn't have the cojones to release a paper by a 12-person, 2 1/2-year committee that says 40% of ads for weight-loss products "make at least one representation that is almost certainly false," as the Federal Trade Commission did last week. The study proves, mainly, that the FTC is too lazy to investigate 60% of diet ads.

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This all started in 1997 when the FTC, which has a very deluded, Douglas MacArthur self-image, began "Operation Waistline," which is always referred to in quotation marks in the report. Basically, "Operation Waistline" consisted of sending out letters to publications warning them about running ads with false claims. These letters, the FTC was shocked to learn, were universally ignored. The FTC researchers never asked themselves if they would open a letter with the return address of "Operation Waistline."

A vengeful FTC apparently spent the next half-decade sublimating in a 60-page report with all the appalled earnestness of a freshman college paper, only with really nice 3-D color charts. At one point it reads: "An ad for a product made from ground-up shells of shrimps, crabs and lobster asks, 'Have you ever seen an overweight fish?' ... In fact there is no convincing evidence that the shells of shrimps, crabs or lobsters cause weight loss." Not only that, but, as I accidentally proved in third grade, you can indeed get a fish so fat that it will die — and also stuff up your toilet. Though the report, in keeping with FTC policy, doesn't indict or endorse specific products, it takes a very serious stance against apple pectin, saying that despite an ad's claim, apple pectin isn't really an "energized enzyme that can ingest up to 900 times it's [sic] own weight in fat." The investigation included not only pills but also those jiggling belts whose infomercials I'd be sorry to see go, and Get Slim Slippers, which, assuming they are poorly constructed, sound to me as if they would indeed provide a calorie-burning workout.

I called Richard Cleland, who led the study and who I realized was a completely different kind of person from me when he told me he never once, in the course his study, directly contacted one of the before-and-after women. Still, he seemed like a nice guy, until I found out that Cleland, 53, weighs 150 lbs. and is 5 ft. 11 in. This diet-ad thing, apparently, is just a way of rubbing people's faces in it.

Things took a bad turn when, in my opinion, Cleland didn't get nearly excited enough when he found out I had read his entire 60-page report. There was no "I love your stuff too" or "my editor took out all the good fen/phen jokes." However, he invited me to be a member of the panel of the Weight Loss Advertising Workshop in Washington on Nov. 19 — he said I could fill out the application form on the FTC website if I wanted to. But it didn't seem as if we were bonding. In fact, I ultimately decided against attending the meeting when he told me the agency isn't allowed to serve food. "One of our rules is that we don't supply food for conferences. If we have a meeting, the staff has to buy the coffee. I have no clue why," he said. I'm guessing it's because there is no money left after spending 2 1/2 years proving that diet ads are fake.

I asked Cleland whom he was planning on bringing down next: phone psychics? Gene Shalit? The woman on the other end of the phone-sex line who probably isn't a 25-year-old blond with large breasts and a penchant for the phrase "much funnier writer than David Sedaris"? I may have revealed a little too much to the FTC guy.

I got Cleland to admit that most people who buy diet pills know they don't work, and that the Venn diagram of those people and the people who read FTC reports doesn't have enough overlap to be worth 2 1/2 years of effort. What he didn't understand, and why he should use whatever little bit of remaining FTC budget he has left to take his staff to a Eugene O'Neill play, is that people want to be deceived. You don't go to John Edward because you believe, but because it's nice to pretend you believe, to bask in the lie. Miracle cures aren't about the cure, but about the miracle. And while that may mean grating lobster shell on my salad, it still sounds a lot better than working out.