TikTok said it would be a haven for body positivity. Then it took $4.3 million to push weight-loss products.
TikTok took millions of dollars worth for ads selling damaging weight loss products, analysis shows.
Promoted products offer extreme weight loss via laxative drinks and fitness regimes.
These posts show a troubling contrast to TikTok's claims to support body positivity.
TikTok accepted millions in ad revenue from two companies that sell weight-loss products promising extreme results, violating its own policies and calling into question its commitment to body positivity.
The platform sold ads worth $4.3 million to companies owned by the digital-wellness firm Kilo Group, according to analysis shared with Insider by the campaign group Media Matters.
It said the spending took place between November 1, 2022, and January 7, 2023, citing the digital-ad research tool Pathmatics. Collectively, the posts were viewed 415 million times, it said.
The promotion was mostly for two of Kilo's brands. The first was ColonBroom, which sells a laxative drink it claimed could enable weight loss of 90 pounds in two weeks. The second is Beyond Body, which sells advice and nutrition plans aimed at "problem" body parts users want to be slimmer.
Both made promises of weight-loss which an expert told Insider were unrealistic and potentially harmful.
Following inquiries by Insider, TikTok noted that some posts were hidden to certain users and some had been removed, but did not specify when this occurred. ColonBroom and Kilo both conceded the campaigns were problematic, though Beyond Body defended its products.
Analysis of the promoted posts by Insider show them to be a troubling contrast to TikTok's claims to support body positivity.
They also conflict with what TikTok told Insider was a blanket ban on weight-loss products, though the platform did not respond when asked to concede that those specific posts breached its rules.
In September 2020, TikTok made a show of its body-positive credentials, saying it was banning ads that promoted weight-loss supplements and fasting. A spokesperson said its aim was to "safeguard our community from harmful content and behavior while supporting an inclusive — and body-positive — environment."
ColonBroom and Beyond Body offer products that are a far cry from this aspiration.
Unrealistic ideals that could be dangerous
ColonBroom and Beyond Body's posts showed influencers advertising the product, offering viewers 10% off laxative drinks and a wellness book with a code.
The brand's own accounts have limited organic reach — with fewer than 3,000 followers — but a handful of videos had hundreds of thousands of views that are difficult to explain without paid promotion. Both their feeds are full of young, slim women praising its products.
ColonBroom's product is a laxative drink that claims to help customers lose weight as well as improve metabolism, reduce bloating, and "cleanse" the gut.
Dr. Wendy Bazilian, a registered dietitian, told Insider that ColonBroom's products are essentially sweetened, overpriced fiber supplements.
They are less effective than cheaper solutions like eating oatmeal with some walnuts, or a few tablespoons of chia seeds, she said.
She said the products wouldn't do any harm to people taking them, but could damage their self-esteem when the extreme results did not materialize.
"It's very expensive, and perhaps get their hopes up too high," Bazilian said of the products.
Insider tested an estimate on ColonBroom's website, which made extreme claims for its product's effectiveness.
Insider described a hypothetical 5'8" woman who was 250 pounds and had a goal weight of 100 pounds. The site suggested that the 150 pounds difference could be lost in five weeks, losing 90 pounds in the first two.
Beyond Body's ads are more subtle, but ultimately promote an unrealistic 28-day weight loss plan that advertises goals such as getting a flat tummy before the holidays, or achieving a dream body before going on vacation.
On its app, users are prompted to click on areas of the body they would like to change. An advert for the book also states readers will be able to "shape and slim problem body areas."
Healthy, sustainable weight loss is much slower than the brands claim, and most people should not aim for more than one or two pounds per week, Bazilian said.
After Insider asked about the ads, some of the ColonBroom posts were deleted. TikTok told Insider the ads for both brands had been restricted, and were not pushed to certain users.
"The safety of our community is a top priority at TikTok," the spokesperson told Insider. "All paid ads must adhere to our Advertising Policies and we do not allow ads promoting weight loss or weight management products and services on our platform."
A spokesperson said both brands continued to advertise on the platform, and that ColonBroom was running ads as of January 30 that were deemed acceptable under its policies.
Advertises deny promoting weight loss
A ColonBroom spokesperson told Insider the company's main goal was not to encourage weight loss, but address "the fiber gap" in the US. It said its intention was not to "reinforce any negative behaviors" but admitted its posts had been "unclear."
"TikTok is a relatively new advertising platform and we attempt to experiment with it using various approaches," the spokesperson said. "Currently, we have stopped distributing the ads that were considered inappropriate, as we see that the message we wanted to transmit was not clear."
A Beyond Body spokesperson said the plan acts as a "guideline" and the aim is to teach customers "healthy eating methods." The person said none of the posts said the words "weight loss," a deliberate effort to adhere to TikTok's policy.
"The product uses a scientifically proven calorie deficit approach that reduces the daily energy intake by 500 calories which is a safe method for weight loss in combination with a healthy and balanced diet," they said.
Monika Jūra Jakučiūnienė, the head of communications at Kilo Group, told Insider that "the campaigns that are mentioned in the Media Matters report look concerning" and that it would investigate what happened.
Kilo Group declined to confirm the amount of money it spent on TikTok ads, citing non-disclosure agreements. TikTok didn't answer Insider's question about the figure.
Olivia Little, a senior researcher at MediaMatters, told Insider that TikTok has a broader problem enforcing its policies around questionable ads, citing a previous scandal in early 2022 involving selling ADHD
"In an ideal world, TikTok would just eventually learn to enforce their own policies," she said. "They have good policies on the books, but they're functionally useless if they're not enforcing them. And they're clearly not doing that."
Read the original article on Insider