“Cut down a bit of your belly everyday by following this 1 weird old tip,” it reads. The “weird old tip” is revealed only after you abandon what you were reading and click on the ad.
For months, versions of the ad have been just about everywhere. They have run as pop-ups and display ads on some of the most popular Web sites around, including Facebook, Weather.com and About.com. They have also shown up on the home pages of news organizations such as the Los Angeles Times, MSNBC, The Washington Post and the Guardian newspaper in Britain.
The ad is so broadly distributed that it’s likely you’ve seen it not just once or twice but hundreds of times. The accumulated number of “impressions” — the number of times it has flashed by someone on the Internet over the past 18 months— runs into “the tens of billions,” estimates Steve Wernikoff, a government lawyer who has tracked it. “It’s just a tremendous amount.”
The innocent-seeming “1 Tip” ad is actually the tip of something much larger: a vast array of diet and weight-loss companies hawking everything from pills made from African mangoes to potions made from exotic acai berries. Federal officials have alleged that the companies behind the ads make inflated claims about their products and use deceptive means to market them.
The take so far: at least $1 billion and counting.
The “1 Tip” ads are the work of armies of “affiliates,” independent promoters who place them on behalf of small diet-product sellers with names such as HCG Ultra Lean Plus. The promoters profit each time someone clicks through to the product seller’s site and orders a free sample. The sample, however, isn’t always so free.
A 3-step scheme, FTC says
In lawsuits filed over the past year, the Federal Trade Commission has alleged that the ads are the leading edge of what amounts to a three-step scheme that has conned millions of people.
Much like a barker outside a carnival tent, “1 Tip” is merely a come-on, a lure to start the process. People who click on the ad are directed to a second site, which looks like a diet or health-news page. The sites go by names such as Consumeronlinetips.com and Weeklyhealthnews.com.
The sites typically feature an article in which an attractive young TV reporter “investigates” the benefits of a diet involving a series of products. Sometimes the products are made from mangoes or acai berries, a fruit grown in South and Central America. In other cases, the products come from human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), a hormone produced by developing embryos and the pituitary gland.
“We here at Channel 7 are a little skeptical” of the hCG diet, reads the copy at Consumeronlinetips.com. “So we decided to put these products to the test.”