In this city of layaway liposuction and laser vaginal reconstruction, weight-loss scams rarely raise an eyebrow. But the direct-mail weight-loss campaign that targeted Hollywood comedian Stephanie Courtney took making a buck off people’s body-image anxieties to a new level.
Sifting through her mail after a trip abroad last summer, Courtney found a hand-addressed plain white envelope with no return address postmarked Santa Ana. Inside lay a many-folded newspaper clipping with the words “Stephanie, try it. It works!” scrawled in childish cursive across the top. The clipping appeared to be a full-page ad for diet pills called Berry Trim Plus. Svelte “model-actress” Robin Cole was pictured in a bathing suit, delivering a testimonial that began, “Dear Friend.” Before-and-after photographs of “regular” women and a box of endorsements from purported “M.D.s” were also featured.
Courtney, 27 and of average build, racked her brain for who could have sent the poison-pen letter. “I thought maybe it was a stalking thing,” she told OffBeat. After comparing notes with fellow standup Sharon Houston, who had received the same mailer in April, Courtney hatched a theory that someone “really sick” was targeting female comedians in an effort to undermine their confidence.
The truth is, the real sender, Health Laboratories of North America (HLNA), had gone to great pains to make the comedian think the letter was personal. The company, which has been using similar tactics for the past 10 years, got Courtney’s name and address from a purchased mailing list and sent off what the Federal Trade Commission refers to as a “Door-Opener”: junk mail disguised as personal correspondence. Shouldn’t there be a law against this kind of thing?
Well, there is — almost. In 1996, Georgetown Publishing, a D.C.-based public-speaking book company, settled a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) lawsuit over a mailer featuring a fake newspaper book review with a scribbled Post-it note attached. The FTC charged Georgetown with deceptive advertising for making it appear “that the clipping had been sent by an acquaintance.”
The major distinction between Georgetown Publishing and Health Laboratories is that the book company used a faked newspaper story, while the diet-pills campaign uses a mock newspaper ad. When asked why HLNA had slipped under the radar, FTC attorney Lesley Fair stated, “We’re generally more concerned with the product being all its manufacturers claim.”
In fact, Berry Trim’s product claims also have come under fire. The Obesity & Health Information Bureau gave Berry Trim Plus a 1991 “Slim Chance” award, an honor bestowed on weight-loss products the watchdog group deems to be bogus. One of the active ingredients in Berry Trim pills, chromium picolinate, was the subject of a 1996 FTC deceptive-advertising suit against three supplement manufacturers, who claimed that the substance burns fat and increases muscle mass. The company also gets black marks from Better Business Bureaus in New York and Arizona for refusing to substantiate its effectiveness claims or provide refunds. (The Better Business Bureau in Nevada gives the Carson City–based HLNA a staisfactory rating.)
HLNA has no plans for changing its marketing tactics. The Carson City, Nevada–based company was hard to track down: The only address on the ad is for a Mailboxes Etc. in Katonah, New York, and the phone number feeds into a Delaware telemarketing center. When OffBeat finally reached company spokesperson Michelle Torres, she faxed over a statement saying that the “purpose [of the campaign] is merely to encourage the recipient to read the ad . . . We thank you for taking the time to submit your inquiry.”
Courtney was not encouraged. “Of course I wouldn’t take a pill to lose weight,” she said. But “you automatically assume there’s this element of truth to the weight thing . . . in the back of her head, every girl thinks, ‘I’m too fat.’”
GOV’S AIDES SPELL DISASTER
The headline on the press release that came in last week from the office of our education governor was simple and bold: “Governor Davis Aides Disaster Relief Effort in Turkey.” Not “Aids,” mind you. “Aides.” Endeavoring to interpret this headline-speak on its own terms, the best we could come up with is, “Governor Davis’ aides are a disaster in relief efforts in Turkey.”
In fact, an exclusive Weekly investigation confirms this to have been precisely the case. First to arrive in Istanbul, our sources tell us, were staffers for Davis’ PAC, who hurried to stricken areas and implored quake victims to make midrange ($350 to $1,000) contributions to Davis’next gubernatorial campaign. Press Secretary Michael Bustamante recounted how one elderly woman (“We think she was a woman; she — or he — was totally buried under rubble except for her hands and forearms”) was persuaded to write Davis a check. Longtime Davis consigliere Garry South positioned the checkbook in one of her hands, a pen in the other, and guided her (“She needed help — she couldn’t see or hear,” South explained) in making what South termed “a damn fine contribution.”
South has drawn criticism in Sacramento recently for advising Davis to go slow on HMO reform, while at the same time working for public-relations titan Burson-Marsteller, which claims many leading California HMOs as clients. A similar controversy apparently erupted in Istanbul, when the Turkish government discovered South was under contract to the hitherto unknown “Achilles League,” an ultranationalist Greek organization whose stated goals include “the reconquest of Turkey and the resacking of Troy.” According to one high-level Turkish official, “We first grew suspicious when we noticed that the California quake-relief teams were leveling only those buildings that had not been damaged at all.” South was expelled last week, our source confirmed.
Press spokesperson Bustamante says that Davis’ aides are on call to help out wherever major natural disasters occur. “These are real zones of opportunity,” he noted.
Are the 1,000 bumblebee-yellow-and-black ABC-TV banners touting the Disney-owned network’s fall season about to come down, at last? Will the vinyl versions of Drew Carey, Jenna Elfman and Camryn Manheim fly no more? Last Friday, city officials ordered Howard Furst, whose AAA Flag & Banner company was paid more than $100,000 by ABC to install the minibillboards, to remove the “banners by or before Friday, September 17, 1999.” City law makes it illegal to “install any street banner of a commercial nature,” and, after a monthlong review, the Department of Public Works investigation has “revealed numerous commercial banners throughout the city.” Gee!
What Public Works found, as a Weekly investigation had before it, is that the city is plastered with illegal banners, belonging to, not just ABC, but the Dodgers, Kings and Lakers, the MTA and a few local business districts. So, now that the city has discovered that its own bureau of street services routinely violated regulations by issuing banner permits to commercial enterprises, can we expect to see our city streets cleansed of the offending merchandising?
“Damn right they will,” said Assistant City Attorney Chris Westhoff. “If they ever expect to get any other banners up, they’ll be taking these down.”
But at this late date, ABC has gotten exactly what it wanted, by cloaking L.A.’s prime real estate, its streets, right into the fall television season, which started this week with Monday Night Football. The premiere lineup includes Dharma & Greg, Spin City and The Practice. Keeping ABC’s roadway backdrop aloft straight through this week’s Emmy Awards, hosted by Elfman (a.k.a. Dharma), and big win by David E. Kelley (a.k.a. best drama The Practice), was a PR coup.
In fact, a coup d’état, since it was the bungling L.A. City Council that, after the banner brouhaha first broke, imposed a 30-day moratorium on putting up any new banners and — here was the really big favor to ABC — on hauling any of the offending ones down. This favor was accomplished with unrivaled largess: The city also returned ABC’s $46,000 fee, presumably to underscore the point that the commercial banners should never have been issued a city permit in the first place.
It now remains to be seen if ABC will comply with the city’s order. Craig Furst, son of AAA Flag owner Howard, told the Weekly he’s not removing the banners just yet. “We’ll have to wait and see,” he said. “I’ll let ABC handle it. They’ve got a lot more pull with the city than I have.”