Group of athletic adult men and women performing sit up exercises to strengthen their core abdominal muscles at fitness training.

Exercise Equipment Advertisements and Consumer Distrust

By Jack Becker

Are you ready to learn about “the most innovative piece of exercise equipment ever”? To take advantage of “the momentum of gravity to target your entire midsection”? Doesn’t everybody want to “lose those love handles nobody loves”? To finally “have the flat washboard abs and the sexy v-shape [they’ve] always wanted”? Within “just weeks, not months,” anybody can “firm and flatten their stomach.” And “best of all, it’s fun and easy and takes just three minutes a day.”

Despite its endorsement from an expert fitness celebrity and customer testimonials, you might be skeptical of the Ab Circle Pro’s claims. After all, can you really cut out five minutes from the iconic 8-Minute Abs routine?

Massive and misleading promises are an unfortunate reality for many exercise equipment advertisements. Illegitimate advertising claims can harm consumers and impact overall consumer trust, which creates an uphill battle for honest companies. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) already regulates exercise equipment, but supplementing its efforts with more consumer education and industry self-regulation could be a winning combination to restore trust in the fitness industry.

A State of Bad Advertisements

The Ab Circle Pro is not alone in its advertising methods. Another timeless example, the “revolutionary” Shake Weight, used “dynamic inertia” technology to give “visible results in just six minutes a day.” While at least one claim was supported by “independent scientific studies” and the product was effective to some degree, evaluators refuted how “revolutionary” the Shake Weight really was.

The fitness and weight loss industry is riddled with distrust due to claims like those featured in the Ab Circle Pro’s and Shake Weight’s advertisements. The Center for Science in the Public Interest provides a helpful analysis of deceiving advertisements in supplements (unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of overlap with exercise equipment). “Tricks of the trade” include lackluster studies, unverified third party approvals, and “results not typical” fine print.

And these strategies are not just limited to infomercials. Social media has opened the floodgates for influencer advertising, and there’s no shortage of downright strange weight loss advice and equipment on YouTube (including Saran Wrap). At times it’s hard to tell what’s genuinely educational and what’s an advertisement. At other times it’s blatantly obvious. Certainly, no matter where you are, another sales pitch is always lurking.

Who Regulates Exercise Equipment Advertising?

The FTC regulates exercise equipment advertising through its statutory mission to prevent “unfair or deceptive acts in or affecting commerce.” The FTC requires that all claims are substantiated and have a “reasonable basis,” meaning that they have “competent and reliable scientific evidence” supporting the claims. The FTC has also produced consumer education materials, with sobering reminders like, “claims that you can lose weight without changing your habits just aren’t true” and “products promising lightning-fast weight loss are always a scam.” State laws can bolster FTC enforcement efforts by allowing consumers to sue for “unfair or deceptive conduct in the marketplace” as well.

In 1997, the FTC executed Project Workout, the second phase of Operation Waistline, to counter deceptive and false claims in advertisements for exercise equipment. The FTC brought four cases against exercise equipment companies and an infomercial producer. One of these companies, for example, claimed unsubstantiated weight loss results from using its Abflex product for three minutes a day.

Project Workout was neither the beginning nor the end of the FTC’s regulation of exercise equipment advertisements. Since then, the FTC has filed charges against companies producing products like the ab GLIDER and the Ab Circle Pro, both of which also promised results from using their devices for three minutes a day (in the FTC’s words, “one thing [ab GLIDER company] will be doing in just 3 short minutes is paying a civil penalty of $3 million”). Of course, advertisements for products that aren’t three-minute ab devices have also been challenged. Skechers and Reebok paid $40 million and $25 million, respectively, for unsupported advertising of toning shoes like Shape-ups. Though not exercise equipment, a 2020 settlement with Teami heavily focused on influencer advertising, indicating that the FTC is fully prepared to take on the social media domain.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are also involved in exercise equipment regulation. CPSC covers exercise equipment in its mission to prevent deaths and injuries from consumer products. FDA covers exercise equipment “used for medical purposes” but not for “general physical conditioning.” This means that exercise equipment with standard claims (like “assisting with weight loss goals” or “increase or improve muscle size”) falls under the general wellness exception and won’t be under FDA scrutiny.

Advertisers Who Promised Six-Packs

With the tradition of over-promising advertisements and lackluster products, there’s a “boy who cried wolf” situation, or more accurately “advertisers who promised six-packs.” As the FTC and industry representatives say, there are no miracles or magic in losing weight. But what if there were?

Imagine if an ab product actually managed to solve society’s fitness woes. If a new and improved Ab Square Pro came out and could miraculously give people their dream body in weeks, how would they inform the public? Consumers have been trained to doubt anything that sounds too good to be true. Traditional methods of persuasion like industry experts and customer testimonials have been used and abused. Crowdsourced reviews, one of the best features of online marketplaces, aren’t safe from undue influence. Even “scientific studies” have been relegated to the sea of doubt. Would the Ab Square Pro be doomed?

Realistically, this product wouldn’t come about without a paradigm shift in how we understand the human body. However, it illustrates how misleading advertisers can frustrate the legitimate ones. The FTC and consumer lawsuits can only do so much. But agency enforcement and litigation are not the only strategies.

The FTC’s consumer education campaigns can be augmented and supplemented. While it’s good to “spot false promises,” it would be even better if consumers could look under the hood of products’ claims. This would take better science education, particularly in analyzing typical shortcomings of studies, and more physiology education. Even without more education, ad hoc independent reviews from organizations like Consumer Reports can help get consumers up to speed (here’s their review of the Ab Coaster).

Alternatively, advertisers could just stop exaggerating. But, if that doesn’t happen, companies can hold each other accountable to avoid the “advertisers who promised six-packs” effect. The Lanham Act provides an avenue for false advertising claims by competitors, but submitting claims to the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Better Business Bureau might be a better option. NAD provides a cheaper and more efficient option than litigation, and it’s quite effective despite its non-governmental status. Promoting honest advertising within the fitness industry can ensure that consumers get the best products and that the companies who make the best products are properly rewarded.

Until then, we can patiently wait for the next iteration of the Ab Circle Pro, Abflex, ab GLIDER, and Ab Coaster to roll around. Some fitness trends never seem to disappear permanently, especially ones promising life-changing results. On a positive note, if there’s a chance for more ab infomercials, maybe there’s a chance for a resurgence of the Crystal Light National Aerobic Championship (the world has been waiting for a rematch between TC3 and the Bad Boys on national TV).

Jack Becker

Jack is a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former student fellow at the Petrie-Flom Center. He thanks you for reading this and hopes you have a great day!

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