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'2020' Investigates Diet Pill Ad's

Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

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Diet pill commercials often make it seem so easy to lose weight; an overweight person is shown photographed with their flab and then pictured with a new fit physique. How do they do it?

Watch Jami Floyd's full report tonight on 20/20 at 10 p.m.

In a special report, 20/20 investigated such claims and found three common gimmicks used to play with the truth from manipulating photos and quoting experts who aren't what they seem to ads that hype up claims without valid scientific support.

Take this for example: in one ad for an old formula of Hydroxycut, Marla Duncan claims she lost 35 pounds. It was "so easy," she said. Missouri attorney general Jay Nixon found one very good reason why - when she took the before picture Duncan had recently been pregnant and given birth.

Is this just downright deceptive?

"We wouldn't be suing people if we didn't think that they were deceptive," Nixon told ABCNEWS.

Hydroxycut said many of their ads did disclose Duncan's recent pregnancy and said their pills are proven to work. But Nixon has his own view. "They care more about their bottom line than your waistline," he said. He is suing the company for misrepresentation, which they deny.

Bulking Up to Slim Down

There's nothing like gaining weight before going on a diet.

In 2001, Mike Piacentino was featured in before and after pictures for Xenadrine. He started out as a competitive bodybuilder, but Todd Macaluso, an attorney who is fighting Xenadrine's appeal of a case he brought over weight loss claims says Piacentino testified that the company paid him to eat.

"They gave him a food allowance and they said, you know, you've got to fatten up," said Macaluso. "Eat like a pig, gain as much weight as you can, stop working out."

Piacentino put on the pounds by skipping his workouts and then gorging on endless boxes of doughnuts and gallons of ice cream. Soon it was time to take the before picture.

"They told him to stick his stomach out. They told him to have a frown on his face. They told him to wear baggy shorts," said Macaluso. "They told him to pull his shorts down below his belly button and they told him to stand there like he was a slob."

When it was time to lose the weight, Macaluso said the company had the former weight lifter take Xenadrine. He also used his bodybuilding expertise and worked out hours at a time, sometimes twice a day, to get back into shape.

Dubious Doctor Endorsements

When doctors are included in commercials to promote a product, their praises are not always what they seem.

In one example, a group of doctors gave glowing testimonials for Xenadrine, but New Jersey attorney general Peter Harvey is suing the company for using the specialists to mislead the public. "They had not given [Xenadrine] to their own patients," said Harvey. "And they wouldn't give it to their own patients."

So why did they endorse the product? Harvey thinks the $1,000 they were each allegedly paid may have had something to do with it and said they were paid to "read a script."

At least Xenadrine relied upon real medical doctors to "endorse" their diet pills. An Alka Slim infomercial introduces their expert as Dr. Tom Morter. He provided a 30-minute talk on the science behind Alka Slim pills but never mentioned the fact that he's not a medical doctor.

When ABCNEWS asked an Alka Slim executive if Morter is a chiropractor, Jay Hanson said "yes" but refused comment on why that is not mentioned in the infomercial.

"He probably wouldn't have the same credibility if people knew that," said University of Florida pharmacology professor Paul Doering.

"Do you think it's a coincidence that no one said he's a chiropractor?" asked Doering. "No. The natural progression is if you see the word doctor, then it's assumed that that person is a medical doctor."

Medical Miracles?

There's also a troubling new advertising twist - supplements touting weight loss with medical miracles.

An Ultimate HGH infomercial says that the product will "remove wrinkles, improve skin elasticity, increase memory retention ... and improve vision."

The ad even gives the outrageous impression that the pills can help treat cancer. A woman is quoted saying she was diagnosed with advanced stages of the disease. She goes on to say, "Within six weeks of my treatment, they sent me for an ultrasound." She goes on to say the test was clear and says, "Thanks to the product, I'm looking down a new road and I'm healthy."

When confronted in person, the president of Ultimate HGH, Stephan Karian responded by asking ABCNEWS to "get off the premises."

"Don't you think that if there was a cure for cancer ... that it might reach the newspapers, it might be on television, in fact there might be a Nobel Prize waiting for that guy's mantle?" said Doering.

Another person who seems to be in line for that Nobel Prize is Alex Guerrero of Supreme Greens. His ad features oddball theories and also seems to promise a cure for cancer along with most other degenerative diseases from heart disease to diabetes and arthritis.

After reviewing these infomercials, Doering said, "They take bits and pieces of the truth and sprinkle it into nothing more than a bunch of fabrication."

But in his infomercial, Guerrero says he has a clinical study of 200 terminal patients to prove his theories. When ABCNEWS showed up and asked to see the studies Guerrero said, "There is no study." He said the clinical study was based solely on the patients he sees and has not published a written study.

Guerrero said the production company, ITV, twisted his words unfairly to make his vegetable supplement seem like a miracle pill, which he admitted it is not. ITV claimed Guerrero saw the ad and never complained to them about its content.

Is it really possible that manufacturers can make claims for their products without adequate data?

"Talk is cheap ... that's the common misbelief, that somebody up there is looking out for us," said Doering. "But in fact, the regulation of the dietary supplement industry is so lax that it comes as close as I can think of being totally unregulated."

The bottom line: Never underestimate how low some marketers will go to sell you that magic pill. Just remember, the only real magic is diet, exercise and a healthy dose of skepticism.

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