Should Social Media Ban Underage Users from Seeing Weight Loss Ads?
October 1st, 2019 by Diana Ross
For many, it’s become almost impossible to scroll through a social media feed without seeing a diet product ad promising effortless weight loss. Many adult women have become victims of diet scams, from magical powders that were supposed to make us feel full and did everything but to herbal weight loss teas that led only to abdominal pain and diarrhea. Usually, we put the experience behind us and move on.
Weight Loss Products Can Do Serious Damage
In cases where the adverse impact on consumer health has been more drastic, people have approached watchdogs like the Federal Trade Commission. To the FTC, weight loss fraud is one of the top priorities when it comes to advertising issues. In 2011, more people fell prey to weight loss scams than any other fraud. 5.1 million Americans bought and used such products that year according to Federal Trade Commission survey data.
And that’s just the adults.
People struggling with weight issues are a very vulnerable group, and marketing tricks are becoming more and more complex. Companies are now more adept at taking advantage of consumers than ever. They pay celebrities to endorse their products on social media to reach the highest number of potential consumers. Teenage girls are the most susceptible group. Increasingly, pre-pubescent girls are being targeted as well, with eating disorders being diagnosed as early as 8 or 9 years of age.
As businesses hone in on their target group, body positive advocates are calling out the companies behind the schemes on the impact their products are having on people’s health and self-esteem. Social media is facing criticism too – and responding. Recently, Facebook and Instagram introduced new rules aimed at restricting underage users’ access to diet and weight loss ads. These include everything from appetite suppressants to diet pills and detox teas. Cosmetic procedures are included under the scope of the ban. The new rules specifically ban ads that encourage users to buy products, with or without a discount, or ads requiring users to pay for their services.
Some Social Media are Listening
Instagram made the decision after a series of talks with external experts like Dr. Ysabel Gerrard of the University of Sheffield. In an interview with The Guardian, Instagram public policy manager Emma Collins stated that the policy aims at reducing the pressure social media can put on people. The medium wants to “be a positive place for everyone that uses it”, says Collins, adding that Instagram sought guidance from external experts to make sure measures to restrict and remove such ads would have a positive impact on the medium’s users, who currently number more than 1 billion worldwide.
Professor Stephen Powis, medical director of the UK’s National Health Service, has gone on record about the detrimental effects weight loss product ads can have on young people’s physical and mental health. He has encouraged social media companies to ban “damaging” social media ads endorsed by celebrities that promote weight loss aids.
Celebrities with large followings on social media, like Kim Kardashian West, promote such products very often. West has promoted appetite suppressing lollipops and meal replacement shakes among other diet aids. In an interview for the BBC, Professor Powis reminds that “the risks of quick-fix weight loss outweigh the benefits, and advertising these products without a health warning is damaging. Highly influential celebrities are letting down the very people who look up to them by peddling products which are at best ineffective and at worst harmful.” He adds that it is social media companies’ obligation to do away with the practice of companies and individuals using their platforms to target young people with products that can harm them.
A study on how pre-pubescent and teenage girls interpret weight loss advertising showed that while they are able to see through some obvious forms of deceptive advertising, many of them do not recognize how narrative and visual techniques are applied to increase identification. Many also don’t perceive the emotional responses advertising evokes. The study examined how girls between 9 and 17 years of age interpreted advertising and found they didn’t recognize a series of persuasive strategies. These include subtext and target audience, message purpose, and awareness of economic factors including branding and financial motives.
Hope for the Future?
In the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority announced punitive measures against celebrities who don’t label their posts as being paid ads clearly enough. While this is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t suffice with view to the gravity of the matter. Feeling good about yourself is not about your physical appearance, nor should it ever be related to that. The question isn’t whether social media should ban users under 18 from seeing weight loss ads. It is why this measure hasn’t been taken across the board.
Dani Fogel. is a Communication Coordinator at Brandable, based in Los Angeles, CA. She works on the Queen V brand within the company’s Digital and Ecommerce department.