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New Year's resolution: stop watching health-related infomercials

Couch potatoes eager to improve their fitness level this New Year have yet another reason to eschew television.

A new analysis of health-related infomercials by Brigham Young University researchers confirms the notion that many of the claims made by fat-free celebrities and chiseled gym rats hawking the latest abdominal workout machine or miracle diet pills are misleading or untrue.

"The promise of instant results, the emotional appeal in customer testimonials and the use of pseudo-scientific terms to create credibility are just some of the tactics used to convince people to pick up the phone," said Susan C. Hill, lead researcher and assistant professor of health education. "By examining infomercial marketing tactics we hope to give health educators the information they need to psychologically inoculate the people who are most vulnerable to these types of claims -women, adolescents and the elderly."

In a study to be published in the Jan. 13 issue of the "American Journal of Health Education," Hill presents a detailed analysis of 31 half-hour, health-related infomercials culled from a 1-week sample of 249 such spots. The paper also discusses the implications for health educators teaching media literacy.

"There's a need for health educators to teach people to distinguish between truth and exaggerated marketing claims," said Hill. "Even though there's a reputation of sleaziness surrounding infomercials, there are still a lot of people purchasing these products, making it a near-billion dollar-a-year industry."

Although previous studies have looked at infomercials in general, no previous research has systematically assessed the unique content of health-related infomercials, which advertise exercise equipment, drug or herbal supplements, food preparation equipment, cosmetics and personal hygiene products. Some of the researchers' findings include:

. Infomercials for drug and herbal supplements receive the most air time compared to other health-related products.

. More than half of the infomercials use a news magazine format (similar to the organization of programs like "Dateline NBC" or ABC's "20/20.")

. More than 90 percent of the infomercials employ consumer testimonials and 87 percent promise immediate results.

. Eighty-one percent of infomercials use computer animation.

. Although 65 percent of the ads use legitimate scientific terms to promote or support the product or service, almost half also use what researchers considered "pseudoscientific" terms.

Likewise, Hill says the use of consumer testimonials, aimed at opening viewers' wallets via their heartstrings, and promises of immediate results are suspect.

"If you want to lose weight and keep it off it's going to take a longer amount of time and it's going to take exercise," said Hill, who teaches students enrolled in BYU health education methods classes how to recognize and teach others about unfounded or misleading ad assertions. "Some of the diet claims on these infomercials don't mention the need for exercise or do so in the fine print."

One other tactic that she says should trigger red flags is the use of before-and-after photographs, a device used in 61 percent of the ads Hill examined.

"Because photographs can be doctored, they provide little empirical evidence of promised outcomes," said Hill. " They have a strong emotional impact on viewers - people say, 'If they did it using this product, maybe I can, too.'"

Hill says the tactics infomercial producers employ tend to target women, adolescents and the elderly, populations where media literacy could be focused.

"It's very clear from they way advertisers market the products that they are targeting women, impressionable adolescents with discretionary income and vanity concerns, and the elderly, who tend to be trusting, may be experiencing a feeling of desperation because of an illness and have the money to spend on products that promise to stave off aging or improve quality of life."

Verne Larsen, a coordinator for the Utah State Office of Education, says the study's findings are relevant to health educators and consumers in general.

"Media are good at what they do - they know how to influence the consumer and use those strategies that are most effective," said Larsen. "Consumers need to be aware of this and become knowledgeable, not just buy things on impulse. Part of a good health education is helping youth develop the necessary health and social skills to become productive members of society. Educators need to be as creative as marketers in helping youth develop the skills needed to counteract some of those messages."

Generating public awareness of health-related infomercial marketing strategies among women, adolescents and the elderly may help people be less prone to purchase products of dubious quality and effectiveness, says Hill.

Joining Hill in the study are co-authors Gordon B. Lindsay, BYU associate professor of health education, Steve R. Thomsen, BYU associate professor of communications, and Astrid M. Olsen, a BYU senior majoring in community health.

For Olsen, the chance to co-author a study with professors while still an undergraduate was beneficial to her current and future education.

"It's nice to have this experience to prepare me for graduate school," said Olsen. "It helps me know what to expect and gives me an edge over others as I apply to programs."

Hill's next research steps plan on looking at why people decide to purchase health-related goods and services offered on infomercials.

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