Entrance to RPC building - dark

Skinny Clinic ads promoting weight loss products deemed irresponsible and at risk of endangering public health

Published on 15 January 2021

What are the boundaries on advertising weight loss products which promote prescription-only medicinal products? And what if the ad implies that such products could be used for people who are not overweight?

The key takeaway

Ads promoting weight loss will breach the advertising rules if they are found to be promoting prescription-only medicine and claiming precise amounts of weight loss within a stated period. Advertisers have a social responsibility to ensure that any ads promoting such weight loss products do not imply that consumers who are not overweight would benefit from weight loss treatment.

The ad

The ad consisted of three posts made to the Skinny Clinic’s Instagram page as well as a featured product on the Skinny Clinic’s website:

  1. The bio on Skinny Clinic’s Instagram page, seen in May 2020, featured the claim “Lose 11-13 lbs in 3 weeks [surprised emoji]”.
  2. The first Instagram post, seen in May 2020, was a screenshot of an Instagram story by glamour model Jemma Gilsenan which featured her in a mask alongside the text “@SKINNYCLINIC_”, “#skinnypen”, “I’m gonna be coming out of lockdown half the size!!” and “Forgot to eat again [teary laughter emojis]”. The caption stated “Keep posting and tagging @skinnyclinic_ please”.
  3. The second Instagram post, seen in March 2020, featured an image of a slim woman in Jeans and a cropped top and the text “Can’t believe I’ve put on a size 8 pair of jeans today! I am so happy … can’t wait for my next pen to come, it’s a new way of life for me [smile emoji]”. The caption stated, “We love your feedback @skinnyclinic_ The Skinny Pen suppresses your appetite, you feel fuller faster and it burns calories DM for more Details”.

The website www.skinnyclinic.co.uk, seen in May 2020, featured a product listing for “Weight loss product Saxenda Novo NorDisk”, and included the text “Our weight loss product Saxenda Novo NorDisk is a brand new revolutionary weight loss aid. It’s a self injected daily jab which kicks the hunger, burns calories and makes you feel fuller faster” and “Our Weight Loss Product is Saxenda Novo NorDisk which is newly for weight loss. Saxenda active ingredient is Liraglutide which is MHRA and FDA approved. It is the only licensed injectable prescription only medicine in the UK”. 

The complaint and the response

The ASA challenged whether:

  1. the claim “Lose 11-13 lbs in 3 weeks” in ad (1) complied with the CAP Code in that marketing communications must not contain claims that people can lose precise amounts of weight within a stated period;
  2. ads (2) and (3) were irresponsible because they implied that the product could be used by people who were not overweight; and
  3. ad (4) breached the Code because it promoted a prescription-only medicine.

In relation to ad (1), Skinny Clinic stated that the claim “Lose 11-13 lbs in 3 weeks” was based on feedback that they had received from their clients. Additionally, clients were provided with exercise and nutritional information as well as 24-hour support if necessary. Skinny Clinic also stated that they had not been aware that specific weight loss claims within a stated period were prohibited by the CAP Code.

In respect of ads (2) and (3), Skinny Clinic said that they gave their clients advice based on reduced calorie diets and increased physical activity as Saxenda had to be given in conjunction with this advice. Skinny Clinic confirmed that they had now removed the ads and would ensure that future posts complied with CAP guidance.

With regards to ad (4), Skinny Clinic accepted that they should not have promoted prescription-only medicines on their website and that they had made the necessary changes. In order to be found suitable for Saxenda, a prescription had to be written by a nurse but only after clients had undergone a telephone consultation and completed an online form to assess the client’s suitability for the product. During the consultation, verbal advice relating to a reduced calorie diet and increased exercise was provided. The client would then be sent written information relating to diet and exercise; this information was also available on Skinny Clinic’s website.

Skinny Clinic stated that they were not registered with the Care Quality Commission because they did not treat clinically diagnosed obesity. Their service was an online and telephone business purely for cosmetic purposes and the nurse was an independent nurse regulated by the Nursing & Midwifery Council to prescribe Skinny Clinic’s medicinal product.

The decision

All complaints were upheld.

The ASA considered that the claim featured in ad (1) would be interpreted by consumers to mean that they could lose between 11 and 13 pounds within the stated period of three weeks. Whilst the ASA welcomed the removal of the ad, it found that it breached CAP Code rule 3.9 (Weight control and slimming) because the ad contained claims that people could lose precise amounts of weight within a stated period.

In relation to ads (2) and (3), the CAP Code requires marketers to ensure advertising is prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society. The image featured a glamour model, who appeared slim. Text in the post stated, “I’m gonna be coming out of lockdown half the size!!” and in ad (2), “Forgot to eat again”. The ASA considered that this implied that she wanted to lose a significant amount of weight and the injection would enable her to skip meals to achieve that; consumers, therefore, could also use the product for the same purpose. Similarly, the image of a slim woman alongside the claim “It’s a new way of life for me” in ad (3) implied that Skinny Clinic’s injections could be used for cravings in people who were not overweight to maintain their weight on an on-going basis.

The message that people who were not overweight would benefit from weight loss treatment was held to be irresponsible by the ASA. Additionally, whilst Saxenda was indicated as an adjunct to a reduced-calorie diet and increased physical activity for weight management in adult patients who were obese (according to the European Medicines Agency), the ads suggested uses fell outside the licenced indications listed in the Summary of Product Characteristics for this medicine.

The ad was found socially irresponsible and breached the CAP Code rule 1.3 (social responsibility).

The advertising of prescription-only medicines to the general public was prohibited by the Human Medicines Regulations 2012 (HMR) and this is reflected in CAP Code rule 12.12. Advertisements for weight-control or slimming products must not suggest or imply that to be underweight is acceptable or desirable. If they are used, testimonials or case histories must not refer to subjects who are or seem to be underweight. Underweight, for the purpose of this rule, means a Body Mass Index below 20. The ASA found that ad (4) breached rule 12.12.

Why is this important?

This is just one ruling of three where the ASA has upheld rulings against three separate brands promoting similar weight loss products and services on social media. The trio of rulings from the regulator follow a CAP ban on cosmetic surgery ads targeted towards teenagers, amid fears of the over promotion of unhealthy body images.

The rulings highlight that the ASA is taking a zero-tolerance stance on any ads that promote products or services that exploit insecurities surrounding body image – especially during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Any practical tips?

This ruling serves as a reminder as to how careful any advertiser of slimming products needs to be. Even if a brand has customer testimony, claims of specified weight-loss within a defined period will not pass the ASA’s strict tests. Remember also that advertisers and brands must not advertise prescription-only medicines. And finally, even if your copy for your weight loss product is ‘safe’, don’t use it alongside models who don’t need to use it.