When Joe Loney discovered Liver King, a shredded fitness influencer known for eating raw organs, he was hooked.
By working out and sticking to a primal diet, the 35-year old Briton believed, he could attain the same ripped physique as Brian Johnson, the influencer’s real name. Beginning in 2021, Loney ate a daily steak so rare it was almost raw, taking a break only every two to three months.
Then, in December, the king made a confession to his subjects. He admitted in a YouTube video, which now has almost 4 million views, that he was taking roughly $11,000 of steroids a month. Next he was hit with a $25 million lawsuit claiming he used deceptive marketing for his Ancestral Supplements, which he says have generated more than $100 million in sales a year.
“I felt betrayed,” said Loney, who wasn’t part of the now-discontinued lawsuit. “I probably made at least 10 or 20 comments on his videos saying, ‘When are you going to stop doing steroids?’”
Johnson is just one of many health and wellness influencers with millions of followers who are being sued over alleged misleading or false product claims. The lawsuits come as online promoters move from endorsing other companies’ products to creating and pushing their own. Meanwhile regulators are looking more closely at influencer marketing, which is expected to exceed $21 billion this year, according to an industry report.
In June the Federal Trade Commission released the first update to its Endorsement Ad Guidelines in a decade, with an eye to influencer marketing. Among other refinements, the update defines a “clear and conspicuous” endorsement disclosure as one that is “difficult to miss (i.e., easily noticeable) and easily understandable by ordinary consumers.” The update also says all parties in a marketing campaign can be held liable for breaches, including the content creator.
The document appears to fill a longtime need. According to a 2017 study by influencer marketing agency Mediakix, of the most followed celebrities on Instagram, 93% had failed to meet the FTC endorsement rules at the time.
Even with clearer guidelines, though, it’s still something of a free-for-all.
Oversight hasn’t kept pace with that growth. For example, under the US Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, products such as Johnson’s Ancestral Supplements don’t need Food and Drug Administration approval before going to market.
When consumers feel cheated, they may turn to the courts. Last October a group of women sued wellness influencer Tanya Zuckerbrot and her company F-Factor, also in New York state court. F-Factor clients have included supermodel Olivia Culpo and, Zuckerbrot has said, television journalists Megyn Kelly and Katie Couric.
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