Supplement Companies Skirting Regulation

Selling Hope

The Real Story Behind Nutrition and Supplement Marketing

Jessica Graham

August 30, 2023

I would do anything not to feel like this. 

We have all had that feeling at some point or another—whether the catalyst be a physical ailment, a period of emotional distress, or even just one of those days where everything seems to be going wrong. When someone with a sense of desperation comes across an Instagram account they trust promoting a product that will “fix” them, it feels like magic. Of course you would buy the product. I mean, who wouldn’t? 

Let’s say this struggle for you is your gut health. Maybe you work out, maybe you don’t, but either way, you feel funky after eating. You look in the mirror, then look back at Instagram, then back in the mirror. You wonder whether you’re just bloated. Maybe, you think to yourself. Maybe it is just bloating that I’m seeing. I just don’t know what else to try. Lucky for you, you follow an account that claims to have the cure for bloating! She posts suggestions every morning in her “GRWM” reels. Well, it can’t hurt, right?, you think. You open the commissioned link, add it to your cart, checkout with Apple Pay, and wait anxiously for 5-7 business days until your health is magically fixed. 

Unless, of course, that product makes it worse.

It is a well-settled principle of advertising law that marketers cannot target “especially vulnerable” populations with their products. Essentially, if a person is in constant pain from a spinal injury, a marketer is not allowed to create an ad that guarantees to rid a person of back pain and then display it across hospitals. Advertisements are also not supposed to display unattainable or incredibly uncommon stories to promote their product. We’ve all seen the weight loss ads that show people-made-show-ponies, parading their weight loss as proof that their diet meal plan works. Sure, these usually include a “results not typical” spiel, but these disclosures don’t meet the federal advertising standards.  

So how is it that we are all familiar with diet products, fitness supplements, performance enhancers, etc. that advertise misleading results to a target population? If you ask the makers of these products, it’s because players in the fitness and nutrition industry are not selling you a product. Nay, they are not selling you a diet pill or a microwavable “healthy” lasagna. 

They’re selling you hope.

Advertising, and especially digital advertising, has grown to be an industry of astronomical proportions. To be sure, “[t]he global advertising industry has seen significant growth in recent years and is projected to reach US$ 792.7 billion by 2027.” Though this is a global industry, the size in the United States is unparalleled, “investing almost three times more than its closest competitor, China.” Digital advertising, including advertising on social media, has taken over the largest swath of this industry. Specifically, “[d]igital advertising is expected to account for an increasing share of global ad revenue, reaching 67% in 2022 and projected to grow to 68.5% in 2023 and over 70% in 2025.” Thus, looking at digital marketing practices is becoming increasingly crucial and time sensitive, as the industry expands into unprecedented territory.  

One particularly concerning industry using increasing digital media advertising is the nutrition industry—especially companies selling diet pills, supplements, and the like. Supplement advertising raises two distinct lines of concern: (1) targeting an especially vulnerable group and (2) utilizing aspirational images of transformation to sell the product. 

As Danielle Viola explains, people who are suffering from bloating, for example, are in near-constant pain. Danielle is an online fitness coach whose passion is helping women overcome cycles of harmful dieting. She guides them to a better understanding of their bodies which restores balance to their lives. Danielle is certified in both personal training and nutrition and has extensive knowledge of hormonal imbalances and holistic wellness. In her work, she has seen the harmful impact of these advertising campaigns firsthand:

A lot of women that have IBS or have chronic bloating or always feel inflamed, they’re so tired of feeling that way that they’ll do anything.

“When influencers or companies promote greens powders like this is going to cure your chronic bloating, it’s like, no, it’s not because a lot of the green powders have inflammatory ingredients that can actually cause digestive issues. And I think that, obviously, this is just marketing in general. Marketers try to bring people in by approaching their insecurities or hitting them from an emotional perspective. So, a lot of women that have IBS or have chronic bloating or always feel inflamed, they’re so tired of feeling that way that they’ll do anything. They’re like, ‘I will do anything to not feel like this.’”

The fitness and nutrition space is long accustomed to targeting people through promises of a body “better” than theirs. Usually, these advertisements come in the form of magic diets or pills that will give users their ‘dream body’—as if all it takes is compliance with whatever meal program they’re selling you. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which sets the standards for fair advertising and enforces advertising regulations, has tried to push back on this. In the 1970s, for example, there was a new craze around a diet pill called X-11. These pills targeted people deemed “obese,” for whom the pill was especially medically dangerous. The FTC caught wind of this and filed suit. In ruling in favor of the FTC, the Seventh Circuit wrote:

“[M]any people who need or want to lose weight regard dieting as a bitter medicine. To these corpulent consumers, the promises of weight loss without dieting are the Siren’s call, and advertising that heralds unrestrained consumption while muting the inevitable need for temperance, if not abstinence, simply does not pass muster.”

The promises of weight loss without dieting are the Siren’s call

By equating this pill with the Sirens, who were known to “drag unsuspecting sailors to their meadows and trap them there with the lull of their songs,” the court drew a vivid image of nutrition marketing’s structure: temptation followed by almost certain demise.