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Federal Suit Raises Ethics Questions for Weight-Loss Radio Personality Spots

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Jul. 22--A Federal Trade Commission suit against the marketers of a weight-loss product raises ethical questions concerning radio personalities -- including ones in the Valley -- giving on-air product testimonials.

Late last year, the FTC charged Mark Nutritionals and its officers with making false and unsubstantiated claims for Body Solutions Evening Weight Loss Formula. According to the complaint, the defendants promoted their product using both English and Spanish language testimonial endorsements from popular radio disc jockeys on more than 650 radio stations in 110 cities nationwide.

According to FTC spokeswoman Brenda Mack, three Valley-based radio stations advertised the Body Solutions product: KMLE (107.9 FM), KTAR (620 AM) and KEDJ (103.9 FM).

"I think a primary problem in this area is conflict of interest," said Joseph Russomanno, an associate professor in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Media at Arizona State University. "As a radio personality, an individual's primary allegiance should be to the station and its listeners. But by striking a deal with representatives of a product, there is also some allegiance to them. Loyalty is split."

The FTC complaint alleges that, through radio personalities, the defendants falsely claimed that Body Solutions will:

--Cause substantial weight loss, as much as 20 to 40 pounds, without the need to diet or exercise.

--Cause substantial weight loss even if users eat substantial amounts of high-calorie foods such as pizza, beer, tacos, nachos, cheese, grits and doughnuts.

--Cause long-term or permanent weight loss.

The complaint also alleges the defendants falsely claimed that Body Solutions was clinically proven to cause substantial weight loss, to burn a substantial amount of body fat, and to build a substantial amount of lean muscle mass, all without the need to either diet or exercise.

The FTC complaint includes the following testimony from KMLE personality Stacey Brooks:

"Body Solutions Evening Weight Loss Formula . . . With Body Solutions, you lose weight while you sleep . . . I have lost 10 pounds, been able to keep the weight off, down to a size six, so excited. And you know what, if you are trying to lose weight, Body Solutions could do the same thing for you, too. It's easy. I have not been exercising, have not changed my diet, and yet I was able to lose the weight."

KMLE referred comment to its parent company, Infinity Broadcasting Corp., which couldn't be reached.

At KTAR, Body Solutions was being touted by talk show host Michael Hagerty, said station spokesman Mark Waters.

"Body Solutions was on the air advertising, pretty much November and December of 2001, and January, February and March of 2002, and has not been on the air since," Waters said. "They (Mark Nutritionals) have since filed Chapter 11 about a year ago and have not been on the air with us for quite some time."

Hagerty said he was required by Body Solutions to take the product for several weeks and experience weight loss before endorsing it. By the time of his first commercial, he said he had lost 25 pounds.

"I strictly followed the product's instructions, which were simple: No food three hours before bedtime, and just before bed a cupful of Evening Weight Loss Formula with a 8-ounce glass of water," he said.

Hagerty said there was not a question of ethics in his endorsement of Body Solutions.

"Had Body Solutions not worked, I would have refused to do the commercials (and would have discussed the failure of the product on my KTAR talk show)," he said. "By and large, I think endorsements by well-known, reputable personalities in the community . . . and the nation . . . carry great weight precisely because the personalities have demonstrated great care over the years in accepting only the endorsement offers that they personally believe in and are willing to put their names and reputations behind."

KEDJ general manager Scott Fey said Body Solutions was never touted on his station.

"We had talked to them a long time ago, but they had gotten into financial trouble," he said. "I know they were a big advertiser in the market, they spent a lot of money. But we weren't one of the stations where they spent money."

The FTC complaint, filed in the San Antonio Division of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, is pending. It is seeking preliminary and permanent injunctive relief and consumer redress against the defendants.

No action has been taken or is pending against the radio stations, Mack said.

While many radio personalities are not journalists, their listeners depend on them for information, said ASU's Russomanno.

"The hope, of course, is the information that is broadcast is truthful," he said. "But in instances like this, it was not. The credibility of these people is significantly damaged. In addition, the credibility of all people in media takes a hit. Without the public trust, the media are nothing. Incidents like these damage that trust -- the media's most precious commodity."


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(c) 2003, The Tribune, Mesa, Ariz. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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