Afterwards, the participants were told they would be taking part in a taste test for a new snack product; half read marketing materials that described it as “delicious yet guilt-free,” while the other half believed they were getting a “rich, sinful” (and high-fat) treat. When they were given a plate of 30 cookies, those who had seen the message about Chitosan took significantly more than those who saw only the general nutrition advice. A few took all 30.
Study author Lisa Bolton, a marketing professor at Penn State, characterized the findings as a “boomerang effect,” a psychological phenomenon in which efforts to persuade people one way actually push them in the opposite direction—in this case, a message about losing weight actually nudged them towards actions that made them more likely to gain it.
“People see the drug as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card,” she said. The reminder that quick-fix remedies exist “undermines your motivation,” she said, “and also your feeling that you have the ability to [lose weight] by yourself.”
Or, as the study so aptly put it, “Why make healthier food choices to manage weight if a weight-management drug can manage your weight for you?”
Bolton and her colleagues have previously studied the effects of so-called “remedy marketing” across several different areas and found that across the board, exposure to advertisements touting easy solutions tends to nudge people into poorer decision-making. In finance, for example, “just being exposed to marketing for a debt-consolidation loan makes you think, ‘Hey, the risks of my credit-card spending aren’t too bad, because if I do get into trouble, I can get one of these debt-consolidation loans,’” she said. “And so that kind of leads to reducing your perceptions of the risk and engaging in more risky financial behaviors, in this case.”
Oddly, though, the researchers also found that with weight-loss aids, the remedy-marketing effect was almost all in the framing. When volunteers were exposed to the same Chitosan ad with one small change—the treatment was described as a “supplement” rather than a drug—the boomerang effect went away, even after Bolton and her colleagues controlled for perceived effectiveness. (Whether or not a drug would be considered more effective than a supplement, in other words, wasn’t the driving force behind the difference.)
It bears noting that with a few exceptions—like Meridia and the infamous Fen-Phen—prescription and over-the-counter weight-loss drugs are, on the whole, less dangerous than the dietary supplements that promise the same result. Unlike drugs, supplements don’t need to be formally approved by the Food and Drug Administration. A manufacturer or distributor simply needs to notify the FDA that they intend to market a supplement and explain why it’s “reasonably expected to be safe,” leaving plenty of space for diluted or harmful substances to slip through the cracks unregulated. Since 2004, according to The New York Times, half of all products recalled by the FDA were supplements that contained banned pharmaceuticals—including Zi Xiu Tang Bee Pollen Capsule, a weight-loss supplement whose active ingredient, sibutramine, is the same as that of Meridia. (Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission created “Gut Check,” a website devoted to helping people spot red flags in weight-loss advertisement claims.)