Anatomy of a Weight Loss Site
by Josh DeWald
November 30, 2012
SensaSlim was one of many "miracle" weight loss products that have come and gone. It was an Australian company "headquartered" in Switzerland led by folks who had a history of weight loss scams. At the end of 2011 is was essentially shutdown by the Australian government due to the unsubstantiated claims it made. This article will go over the main features of the site which can also be recognized on other sites of a similar nature. I believe that SensaSlim is not unique in its tactics, neither in the past or with respect to other current products on the market.
Brian Dunning recently had a Skeptoid podcast about how to detect crap web sites. I'd like to add to that and focus on some common claims and features of miracle weight loss product websites.
Claim that product is backed by "years of research" and is "Clinically Proven"
The first ingredient is to claim that your product is really just an application of solid scientific principles and, better yet, has been specifically "clinically proven" or "clinically tested" using "thousands" of volunteers. For some reason the supposed supporting research is frequently in some other country other than America (or wherever the product is being advertised). I suppose this is intended to increase the mystique.
Lacking either of those, they may just say that the product is really just a bottled up version of the "ancient wisdom" or "tradition" of some remote place.
This particular one can come in multiple forms:
The FTC itself has a brief discussion about how to watch for unsubstantiated claims of weight loss products (including some specific ones).
Talk about how the product was invented by doctors
A PhD is a much more relevant degree than an MD to creating a product based on science. Don't be fooled by products claiming that their product was invented by a doctor. It is not at all relevant who created the product if it is not backed by actual science. It doesn't matter if the product has a large "medical board of advisors" either. There are unfortunately a large number of people with advanced degrees who believe strange things and promote (intentionally or not) pseudoscience. Nobel-prize winner Linus Pauling famously promoted Vitamin C mega-dosing, which is just not backed by any real evidence.
Discuss how your product 100% Safe and Natural
Any substance that does what is being claimed of these product to prevent the body from eating too much, or from absorbing fat, or anything else, then there are going to be side effects (homeopathy is the shining example of this whole notion). Claiming "100% safe and natural" is simply a way of allowing the product to be listed as an unregulated "dietary supplement" which, unfortunately, is very easy to do in countries like the US and Australia. The only "requirement" is that the company makes a good faith promise that the product is manufactured using some amount of quality control and that it only contains ingredients considered "safe". There is no requirement whatsoever that the product actually do anything useful. And since dietary supplements are not regulated well (or at all), all sorts of fun substances are sometimes added, as discussed by the FDA in their general warning against dietary supplements.
Claim that product has been reported on in independent news outlets
This is, in a way, one of the most deceptive practices of these sites. In its simplest form they will use the same trick as for "research" and make vague references to the names of newspapers or media outlets, but not actually include a link to any articles. What use this is to consumers is beyond me. The most common version of this is to include a link, but it is nearly always to Yahoo! News or another news aggregator. The reason for this is that aggregators are more likely to pick up and display press release content from PRWeb, PRSync, etc. This is easily identified in the section that shows the source (which for traditional news would be AP, Reuters, UP, etc). Some sites are slightly more clever than this, and will not actually link to the articles but will instead display a popup with the content (possibly removing references to the source) and say that it was "published" at Yahoo! News or another source. In the rare cases where it does turn out that the online portion of a media outlet/newspaper did in fact discuss the product, it will nearly always be in their editorial (blogging) section or be sourced from content of another site (for which the same discussion as above applies). Finally, the piece will frequently turn out to be a general profile about someone from the company, or a summary of some research that someone from the company chimed in on (saying that this just goes to show that their product is scientifically backed).
In the case of SensaSlim, they created a string of PRWeb articles which reference each other (basically claiming that the people in one read the other and were inspired to try the product). The weird part is that all SensaSlim stories/releases are under the names of "John Payne" and "Richard Ashcroft", which do not appear to be real people. The phone numbers and email addresses printed for them seem to be completely made up, or actually belong to somebody else. For example, if you take a look at one of the releases, and view the phone number printed, you can drop the local prefix (0) and Google it, you will find someone from India, whose name is actually the same as the email address listed for John Payne, but that as best I can tell has nothing to do with SensaSlim. Or they will use "firstname.lastname@example.org" which almost sounds legit, but it turns out that journalist.com is not in any sense a real site for journalism, but is basically a parked domain.
Add disclaimers basically stating that your product doesn't do anything special
Ah, the disclaimers. Have an entire website devoted to what a miracle your product is, and then have some small print that basically states "the only way to lose weight is to burn more calories than you consume, by eating less and exercising more". Which is the only thing outright true on most of these sites. Some will then claim that their product helps you do that through their miracle technology, either by causing your body to burn more or absorb less, or by making you consume less.
Claim celebrity and medical endorsements
Apparently you can pay celebrities and, sadly, doctors to say good things about your product. In the 21st century, I don't think anybody is fooled by the celebrity endorsements, but unfortunately can very reasonably be fooled by the paid endorsements of doctors.
SensaSlim paid a doctor about $30,000 to appear in videos and speak on its behalf. It turned out to be under false pretenses (he apparently did actually believe they had performed the massive study they claimed to, and so he believed he was endorsing that). He later distanced himself from SensaSlim when he realized the fraud. The whole sordid history of SensaSlim is detailed on this article by the Vic Skeptics.
Claim endorsements that aren't really
A more shady practice of some sites is to print the name of a famous media celebrity or medical professional. For better or worse, Dr. Oz is often the target of this. The name will be in big print and then in little print it will say something like "based on research discussed by..." or "based on good practices recommended by...", amounting to a disclaimer saying "well they don't actually endorse us, but they would if they could".
While I don't want to seem to be endorsing any particular weight loss product or system, I think it would be instructive to contrast the things I discussed with some of the more "mainstream" weight loss systems out there (Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, etc) which help people to do what, ideally, they can do on their own. You will notice that fundamentally those systems are about managing and monitoring your intake and increasing exercise, and they outright say it. They are in effect just complicated ways of making sure that CALORIES_IN < CALORIES_OUT, which in the end is the only method that is going to work to lose weight.
I primarily discussed a single product which was demonstrated to have made unsubstantiated claims. But it would be unwise to think that the makers of SensaSlim represent an exception to the rule, and that all the other unregulated weight loss products are just honest people wanting to get "the truth" out to consumers, and that regulations would just get in the way of them getting a "clinically proven" product out on the market.
There is another weight loss product that is currently on the market that makes similar claims about the relationship between your "senses" and weight loss that SensaSlim does. They also claim to have performed a trial involving thousands of people, but good luck finding any published evidence of this trial. The site does link to a document with a couple hundred published articles, but they have little to do with the claims about the product, and most are in the forms of conference presentations, books and website articles. They are much more careful about all this and, as best I can tell, all of their actual advice amounts to portion control and being aware of what you eat.
by Josh DeWald
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