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The top five women’s health and fitness magazines—ranging from the serious Women’s Health to the lighter Self—together have a total circulation of close to 7,000,000 copies. That’s more than double the populations of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine combined. As a woman in my 20s, I understand why females fixate on how they look. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to feel good about her body, so the wide reach of these publications makes sense.

Many of them have defied the odds, surviving for more than two decades in what has become a volatile industry, and they have a loyal fan base. Why shouldn’t they? The content in Fitness focuses on being healthy, not skinny. Self says it “inspires, informs, motivates, and rewards the individual who wants to challenge herself.” Both Shape and Health aim to help women lead better lives.

With articles like “Cook Healthy and Love Every Bite” offering six easy-to-make recipes, and exercise routines like “Four Weeks to a Better Butt” attractive to even the most gym-averse, these magazines succeed in their editorial goals. “There’s all this information these days about women being really thin and not being healthy,” said Kathy Green, managing editor of Fitness. “We’re trying to portray healthy living, feeling good physically as well as mentally.” The content in the March 2008 Fitness is spot on.

But—and you knew the “but” was coming—in that same issue, just one page before the section of healthy recipes, is an ad for the diet supplement Akävar-20/50. “Eat All You Want & Still Lose Weight,” shouts the page in bright yellow letters. “And we couldn’t say it in print if it wasn’t true!” Seriously? Brimming with language that promises fast, easy weight loss simply by taking a pill, the advertisement reinforces its point with a blonde, bikini-clad woman sprawled across the page.

Diet pills like Akävar-20/50 end up on store shelves without much vetting. Supplements don’t need Food and Drug Administration approval to be sold. Under the FDA’s Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, manufacturers must guarantee that their products are made “in a quality manner, do not contain contaminants or impurities and are labeled accurately.” I don’t see the words “safe” or “effective” anywhere in there.

These products promote quick fixes to help users get skinny or shapely without even trying. Editorial content in magazines like Fitness encourages the opposite: Eat right and work out regularly and you’ll lose weight and tone muscles at a healthy pace. It seems out of character for Fitness to support diet pills and cellulite creams, but the March 2008 issue contained ads for three fat burners (in addition to Akävar-20/50) and a skin-tightening gel.

The Meredith Corporation publication isn’t the only guilty party. The March ’08 issues of Women’s Health, Shape, Self and Health each contains at least one ad at odds with its mission. I don’t doubt that these magazines are committed to offering healthy ways for women to stay fit. But including ads for products like Cytolean and SlimQuick Extremes (diet pills), Oligo.DX (a skin-tightening gel) and Atro-Phex (a mood enhancer) suggests the opposite. Why do magazines whose stated missions focus so heavily on healthy living run ads for such unhealthy products? Does the end (revenue) justify the means (hypocrisy)?


Not a new advertising phenomenon
Unfortunately, this isn’t a new trend. I first noticed it in 2001 while interning at the now defunct Fit magazine. Eager to see one of my first published pieces, I flipped through the issue, scouring each page for my name. What I remember seven years later isn’t the excitement of seeing the byline, but the stomach-dropping dismay with which I read ad after ad for pills promising to help users “lose pounds and inches of ugly fat while you sleep” or “increase your breast size with the #1 selling breast formula in America!” How could they appear in the same place as my piece?

Fit was a small, less recognizable publication than Women’s Health or Fitness, so it probably needed every last advertising dollar. And yes, that incident was seven years ago. However, flip through almost any health and fitness magazine today, and ads for quick-fix products jump out, luring readers with promises to “eliminate stretch marks forever” or “better control your appetite, so you can eat what you love, feel full longer and lose weight now,” and with pictures of thin, happy-looking people.

In the March 2008 Shape, I counted 10 of these ads. One for Redline Princess shows a full-page, pink bottle of the energy drink’s Exotic Fruit variety. It’s on ice, perspiration dripping down its side, as if it could quench the thirst of even the most dehydrated person. The ad is simple, and that’s the product’s message: Use it and you will easily lose fat and enhance your mood and energy. At the bottom of the page, in barely visible print, a note suggests using the product with exercise and a reduced-calorie diet. Is it maybe the advice in this footnote that actually makes the weight-loss possible?

A few pages later, an advertisement for PureGels Clarinol CLA shows up. This supplement supposedly helps those who take it “attain and sustain proper ratios of fat to lean muscle tissue.” If I take this, will I suddenly enjoy exercising as much as the woman in the ad, a silhouetted figure leaping off the page?

Guidelines from the American Society of Magazine Editors ask publications to distinguish editorial matter from ads, by, among other things, using different designs and fonts, and clearly labeling the advertisements. The guidelines say nothing about what types of ads should be avoided, and women’s health and fitness magazines like Shape use that same tactic when creating their own ad-acceptance rules.

Those ads for Redline Princess and PureGels Clarinol CLA that ran in the March 2008 Shape? They don’t breach the magazine’s advertising guidelines. If they ran, they were approved by the editorial department, and that’s all advertising director Julie DeGarmo needs to know. She said editors look for two components in marketing for products like diet pills: unsubstantiated claims (they don’t want ’em) and recommendations to use the product with proper nutrition and exercise (they’ve got to have ’em). It’s not part of the approval process to consider whether the product is harmful or whether its message meshes with the publication’s. In other words, as long as an ad doesn’t claim that a pill helps women lose 10 pounds in a week, and as long as somewhere—even in tiny print—it mentions healthy eating and working out, Shape would likely run it.

“We don’t look specifically to see that it has FDA approval. What we do look at are the claims that are being made by the advertiser,” DeGarmo said. “Anything that has a specific claim about very fast weight loss, we would need them to scale that back. Any weight-loss program needs to be in conjunction with a healthy diet and exercise.”

Even after acknowledging this approval process, DeGarmo deflected responsibility, saying that her advertising reps don’t handle such clients as diet-pill suppliers. She instead blamed the direct-response department. “These are the type of ads that wouldn’t necessarily be featured in the main body of the publication,” she said. “It’s a separate sales department.” The direct-response department deals with products that consumers purchase by phone or on the internet, rather than in retail stores.

Like Shape, the other magazines in this category don’t follow specific guidelines about what they can and cannot print, except to refuse tobacco products. And like Shape, Fitness shifted blame to its direct-response department. Representatives from Health, Women’s Health and Self wouldn’t talk to me at all. When I called Fitness in February, no one was available to comment until the summer. A sales assistant did send me the advertising rates and specs, in case I wanted to place an ad. The director of public relations at Self stepped in before anyone from the editorial or ad department could get on the phone. Rather than talk to me herself, she sent me short blurbs from the “Publisher’s Right to Reject, Cancel or Terminate Orders” about how the publication doesn’t accept ads promoting illegal substances or illicit materials.


Readers know better…or do they?
DeGarmo said Shape doesn’t need ad-content guidelines because her sales reps don’t regularly face this type of moral dilemma—advertising that opposes the magazine’s mission—and because the publication trusts its readers to make educated decisions about the products advertised. “We’re not gonna censor the types of ads that go into the magazine, as long as they’re not causing harm to our reader,” she said. “Our readers—we give them the credit to pick and choose the information from our advertisers that they want to respond to.”

That we-trust-our-readers credo seems to be a common explanation among magazines. Green, managing editor of Fitness, said she has the right to switch an advertisement’s position if it compromises nearby editorial content—for instance, a birth control ad next to a story about birth control—but that’s where her influence ends. “Our editorial will never really support diet pills, but our advertisers will advertise,” she said. “You know, bottom line, this is a business. We don’t always agree with those [ads], but revenue is revenue. There’s a distinction between edit and advertising and I think readers get that.”

Readers may know the difference between the two, but when the messages collide, which should readers believe? “This idea that the public can do the research on their own to figure out what’s proven or not proven? It’s disingenuous,” said David Schardt, senior nutritionist from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “It’s not easy, even for professionals.”

He brought up as an example an ad for a menopause drug that ran in Health magazine in late 2007. The ad exclaimed that 22 clinical studies couldn’t be wrong about the drug’s benefits. After doing some digging, Schardt found that five of the cited studies were counted more than once, and that several actually proved the opposite of what the ad claimed. “It was just a bold lie,” he said. “I contacted Health magazine [to say] that this ad had been wrong. I never heard back from them.”

Fearful of alienating advertisers, publications won’t impose rules against running these ads, even if it means their editorial content makes one argument and the advertisements make another. But as a reader, when I see an ad for a supplement, I want to be certain that, like any new drug, the product has been tested and proven safe. All drugs must get FDA approval, which includes three phases of clinical-trial testing and a review of the drug’s safety and effectiveness. Dietary supplements, on the other hand, get a quality and label-accuracy check, nothing more.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that they are dangerous. But some of them, like those that contained the weight-loss stimulant ephedra, turned out to be. In 2004, the FDA banned ephedra, but only after bad publicity related to the death of a major league baseball player, Steve Belcher, who was taking a product that included the stimulant. A follow-up investigation into ephedra-containing products revealed 16,000 adverse events related to ephedra, including heart palpitations, tremors and insomnia.


Who’s responsible?
So what responsibility do magazines really have to keep these ads away from their readers? The Federal Trade Commission, which regulates advertisements, typically intervenes in cases of rule-breaking or unsubstantiated claims. In January 2007, for example, the FTC charged the marketers of four popular diet pills with making false statements in their advertising. The diet-pill suppliers had to pay $25 million to settle the lawsuit.

Despite such settlements, David Schardt said the FTC isn’t doing enough, and that manufacturers know how to avoid scrutiny. “[The FTC] is the one who should be stepping in to stop some of these fraudulent ads. But there’s too much,” he said. “They can only go after a small number, and I think that most companies know that, and they’re likely to get away with what they’re doing.”

He said publications are passing the buck by putting the onus on readers to determine whether products like diet pills and mood enhancers are beneficial or harmful. “They have a responsibility to their readers to make sure that there’s some reasonable basis for the claims in the ads,” he said. “If [the publications] want the money from the ads, they need to also be responsible to their readers.”

Kathy Green takes that responsibility seriously with Fitness, but she said she sometimes feels caught between a rock and a hard place: “There’s not a lot I can do about it when it comes to the bottom line. [The ads] bring in money. It’s a tough market these days. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t run them.”

It’s possible—even likely—that the editors of Self or Health, who are in a similar position, share Green’s sentiments. Their mission statements hint at it. Their editorial content suggests it. Unfortunately, none of them would comment on the matter.

Maybe it comes down to ownership. Rodale, which owns Women’s Health, has a reputation for being a company that cares about the well-being of its employees, offering an on-site fitness center and focusing solely on publications that cover health-related topics. Rodale isn’t blameless, but, to its credit, it ran only three questionable ads (one of which was an anti-wrinkle cream) in the March 2008 issue of Women’s Health. Shape and Fitness each had more than twice that many.

Perhaps the government needs to get more involved. The FDA could regulate the supplement industry more strictly, requiring the products to go through safety and effectiveness tests before earning the right to be sold. And the FTC could crack down more on the language and claims in the ads for these products.

Or maybe women’s health and wellness magazines need to take responsibility themselves, by refusing to run ads for products that are at odds with their mission statements. If that’s not an option, they should address the topic in their editorial content. If they want to leave it to their readers to make educated decisions about these products, it’s the least they can do.


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