A U.S. Senator has called for a formal investigation of the “predatory” marketing of the buzzy weight loss teas that have infiltrated Instagram thanks to big-name influencers like the Kardashians. In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”)’s chairman Joseph Simons, Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut expressed “deep concern [about] the growing trend of ‘detox teas’ and their false promotion as shortcuts to healthy weight loss and management,” particularly given their marketing to “adolescents and young adults.”
In the 3-page letter dated June 4, as first reported by Verge, Senator Blumenthal pointed to the “exaggerated or blatantly false claims” coming from companies in the nearly $70 billion weight loss industry, such as “Flat Tummy Co., Lyfe Tea, BooTea, MateFit, and Fit Tea,” which he says, “take advantage of marketing tactics through the use of terms such as ‘natural’ or ‘herbal’ to give their products an undeserved healthy image.” Despite such wellness-centric claims, the Senator states that “these tea do not have any clinically-demonstrated benefit, and some components of the tea” – such as Senna leaves and seeds – “can be downright dangerous.”
Beyond the “physical dangers” of these products, Blumenthal addresses the “alarming marketing tactics” being employed to sell such products, and the potential “psychological effects on consumers” that could come as a result. “Supplement manufacturers increasingly rely on social media influencers and celebrities to promote their products, targeting teenagers and young adult women who are already vulnerable to body shaming.” The companies at play, Blumenthal says, “are taking advantage of younger people’s insecurities and the power of celebrities on social media platforms,” such as Kim Kardashian, who he name-checks, “to endorse their products.”
“The dangers of these products, their widespread use, and the deceptive marketing [that is being used] demand federal action,” Blumenthal asserts, calling on the FTC – the government agency tasked with promoting consumer protection in the marketplace – “to investigate the false and misleading marketing practices presented by the manufacturers of these teas and take appropriate endorsement action to protect unwitting consumers from harm,” while also working with other agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration to inform the public of the associated harms.
Blumenthal’s letter comes approximately two years after the National Advertising Division (“NAD”) engaged in a formal investigation of detox tea-maker FitTea in light of consumer complaints about the company’s practice of its posting disclosure-less celebrity endorsements paired with unsubstantiated health claims. According to the NAD’s decision, which was released in 2017, "While the diet and exercise program that FitTea promotes to customers who purchase FitTea might result in weight loss or other weight-related health improvements, there was no evidence in the record that drinking FitTea by itself will boost metabolism, boost immunity, burn fat or otherwise result in weight loss.”
The NAD took issue with the content of some FitTea’s paid for endorsements, namely ones that assert that consuming FitTea helps to promote with weight loss, as well as FitTea’s practice of posting authentic consumer in conjunction with paid-for endorsements, thereby making it difficult – if not impossible – for consumers to distinguish between the two types of postings. According to the NAD’s decision: "It is important for consumers to be able to distinguish between independent reviews and testimonials or endorsements used as advertising for a product.”
With the aforegoing in mind, the NAD held that FitTea should not only require that influencers must properly disclose their connection to the company (namely, by way of “#ad” or “#sponsored” language), but FitTea should carefully monitor that such disclosures are, in fact, utilized. Moreover, the NAD held that FitTea should “separate its endorsements and testimonials from its authentic product reviews on its website, as well as to prominently distinguish which reviews on its website are authentic user reviews and which are not."