Three years ago, Jack Le of Denver took what he anticipated was a giant step toward realizing a part of the American dream. It has become a goal so crucial to success in this country that it is said to shape personalities, enhance romance, elevate career paths and promote excellent posture.
In short, Le decided the time had finally come to obtain his own set of six-pack abs.
Like many Americans, Le decided to bypass decades of scientific inquiry into nutrition and fitness, and instead formed his opinion on compelling evidence revealed in a thirty-minute cable infomercial. On Aug. 5, 2001, Le called the toll-free telephone number at the bottom of his TV screen and purchased his own AbTronic Electric Fitness System. It cost $119.80 plus shipping and handling. It came with a complimentary tube of "Extra Strength Slim Down Gel" and a travel case.
The system -- three elasticized belts, a flexible rectangular pad, a matchbook-sized pulser and a three-volt battery -- promised to rip Le's stomach into classic washboard configuration by using a series of "gentle electronic impulses." The device worked in six modes, the most powerful known as "Fat Blaster." The current would cause the stomach muscles to contract -- as if a genuine stomach crunch were being performed, by proxy, for the benefit of Le's belly -- thus relieving him of any physical effort.
Not long after he purchased his AbTronic system, Le was shocked to learn that the gentle electronic pulses did not, in fact, produce rock-hard abs. They didn't do much of anything, except give off a slight tingling sensation -- not unpleasant, but also not the way to a monster mid-section. So when Le saw a newspaper advertisement calling for similarly aggrieved customers to join in a lawsuit against the company, he signed on.
There is a special place in the universe -- perhaps up the street from men who respond to penis-enhancement e-mails -- for those people who really, truly believe it is possible to achieve rock-hard abs without sweat, pain or, heaven forbid, a sit-up. Let us pause for a moment in awe of their optimism -- but also to marvel at their numbers.
Why is it that so many people automatically assume a politician is lying the second he opens his mouth, yet they believe a paid advertisement that defies common knowledge? Perhaps it is the sheer volume of supplements, treatments, devices, lotions and pills that confuses the customer. And there are plenty of customers; most surveys show that half of all Americans are overweight.
Or maybe it is simply the passionate belief in the power of a ripped physique that permits companies like AbTronic to succeed. For every person who follows his doctor's advice to eat less and exercise more, there is at least one other willing to hand over his money for a product promising to spare him the effort.
It is for people like Jack Le that the Federal Trade Commission was invented. About the same time that Le ordered his AbTronic system, the agency launched its "Project ABSurd" in response to a flurry of advertising by AbTronic and similar devices. Among them were the "Fast Abs" exercise belt and the AB Energizer.
"They came to our attention because the advertising had become so prominent," recalls Walter Gross, an FTC attorney in Washington, D.C. "In fact, it was hard to avoid them."
According to the FTC's own count, in the ten months between April 2001 and February 2002, AbTronic ran its commercials 2,000 times -- six or seven times a day. It was the sixth-most-repeated television advertisement in the country. Hudson Berkeley Corporation of Las Vegas, the system's marketer, spent $18 million on the blitz.
The FTC was unimpressed. "We found the ads... incredible," Gross says.
Many, many others, though, found them irresistible. According to government records, in the year or so they were in business, the makers of AbTronic sold just over $106 million worth of their system. "It's kind of depressing, actually," admits Ed Glennon, another FTC lawyer who worked the case.
A big reason for the huge success of AbTronic was the persuasiveness of the publicity campaign. The ads employed the standard inducements of fitness come-ons: attractive people, enticing claims (big result, little effort), expert testimony -- all spun around a tiny germ of science.
"You can go about your normal business while AbTronic slims, trims and firms your upper abs, your lower abs and/or your love handles with no sweat," one of the hosts declared in the ads. Another host, a woman, added, "It's like doing the equivalent of 600 sit-ups in ten minutes."
"10 minutes = 600 sit-ups," the screen confirmed.
Dr. Julio Garcia, a Las Vegas plastic surgeon, found the system effective. "We've all gone to the beach, seen young women and men with those six-pack type of washboard abs," he confides in the ad. "They're really very sexy, and people really want those. Well, you can lose all the weight in the world that you want, but unless you have good muscle tone underneath, you're not going to have a washboard abdomen." The AbTronic, he confirmed, could help with that.
"Before" and "after" photos demonstrated how real people had lost up to five inches off their midsections after mere weeks of strapping on their AbTronic devices. "I got some friends with some beer bellies, they never want to exercise," said Carmen, from New York. "This is the trick for them."
A confidential study performed by University of Maryland doctors "proved" that electrical stimulation increased ab strength 35 percent better than sit-ups. "That proves that you get better results by use of the AbTronic Fitness System, whether you use it as a supplement to your normal workout or just by itself," one of the hosts concluded.
Actually, the FTC found, you can't. The equipment used in the university study "differed so much from the AbTronic unit that it didn't even correlate," says Glennon.
In May 2002, the agency charged the makers of AbTronic and two similar devices with making false claims. "There are no magic pills, potions, or pulsators for losing weight and getting into shape," FTC chairman Timothy Muris revealed. "The only winning combination is changing your diet and exercise."
The agency's blunt court filing could be required reading for anyone who subscribes to cable. While AbTronic claims it "causes users to get well-defined abdominal muscles, e.g., 'six-pack abs' or 'washboard abs,'" it reads, "in truth and fact, the AbTronic does not cause users to get well-defined abdominal muscles, e.g., &'six-pack abs' or 'washboard abs.'" The agency also discovered that "use of the AbTronic device does not cause inch or fat loss or eliminate cellulite."
In July 2003, one of the companies, FastAbs, settled out of court for $5 million. Soon after, the FTC won an $83 million judgment against the makers of the AbTronic Electronic Fitness System. Of that, however, only a few hundred thousand dollars was ever collected.
In Denver, a local lawyer named David Dansky caught wind of the FTC's crusade against electronic stomach stimulators. Hoping to file a class-action lawsuit of behalf of consumers whose abs had not turned rock-hard, he investigated.
Unfortunately, the makers of AbTronic had all but disappeared. Hudson Berkeley had filed for bankruptcy in the wake of the FTC action; its owners, German nationals, had fled the country with most of their money. All that remained was Julio Garcia, the real Las Vegas doctor who vouched for the system in the infomercial. In early July 2002, Dansky filed suit against Garcia, who "participated in the scheme to defraud Colorado consumers."
Garcia defended himself in court filings, saying he'd been paid only $2,500 for the testimonial. He also proclaimed his innocence by noting that he'd made the deal with the understanding that the infomercial wouldn't be shown in the United States.
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A few months ago, Garcia agreed to settle the Colorado claim for $22,500 -- less attorney's fees. That has left Dansky in a pickle: Thus far, he has found only Le and one other woman to represent his "class" of abdominally abused clients.
Meanwhile, the FTC has filed an action against another body-sculpting system making impressive claims: the Bodyflex, and its inventor, Jack Ching Chung Chang of Las Vegas. In heavily aired infomercials, Bodyflex has claimed that after using its plastic exercise bar with a resistance band for just eighteen minutes a day, "in seven days, you can lose from four to fourteen inches -- guaranteed!"
According to regulators, about 700,000 people bought the device over nine months.