When Joe Loney discovered Liver King, a fitness influencer known for eating raw offal, he was hooked.
The 35-year-old Brit believes that by working out and sticking to a paleo diet, he can achieve the same physique as the influencer’s real name, Brian Johnson. Starting in 2021, Loni eats a steak every day, which is so rare that it’s almost raw and only rested every two to three months.
Then, in December, the king confessed this to his subjects. He admitted in a YouTube video, which currently has nearly 4 million views, that he takes approximately $11,000 a month in steroids. Next, he was hit with a $25 million lawsuit accusing him of deceptive marketing of his ancestral supplements, which he said had annual sales of more than $100 million.
“I feel betrayed,” said Loney, who was not involved in the now-defunct lawsuit. “I probably made at least 10 to 20 comments on his video that were like, ‘When are you going to stop using steroids?'”
Johnson is just one of many health influencers with millions of followers who have been sued for allegedly misleading or making false product claims. The lawsuits come at a time when online promoters are shifting from endorsing other companies’ products to creating and promoting their own. Meanwhile, regulators are taking a closer look at influencer marketing, which is expected to exceed $21 billion this year, according to industry reports.
In June, the Federal Trade Commission released its first updated guidance on endorsement advertising in a decade, focusing on influencer marketing. Among other improvements, the update defines “clear and conspicuous” endorsement disclosures as “information that is difficult for the average consumer to miss (i.e., easy to notice) and easy to understand.” The update also says that all parties involved in a marketing campaign may be held liable for breaches, including content creators.
The document appears to fill a long-standing need. According to a 2017 study by mediakix, an influencer marketing agency, 93% of the most followed celebrities on Instagram failed to meet the FTC’s endorsement rules at the time.
Still, even with clearer guidelines, it’s still a free-for-all.
Supervision has not kept pace with this growth. For example, under the U.S. Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, products such as Johnson & Johnson’s Ancestor supplements do not need approval from the Food and Drug Administration before being marketed.
turn to court
When consumers feel deceived, they may file a lawsuit in court. Last October, a group of women sued wellness influencer Tanya Zuckerbrot and her company, F-Factor, in New York state court. F-Factor’s clients include supermodel Olivia Culpo, Zuckerbrot said, as well as TV reporters Megyn Kelly and Katie Couric ).
“What works for me is going to be different than what works for you,” said Kristin Whelan, a clinical professor of consumer sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Who can tell whether it’s the influencers who are deceiving, or the supplements? Or the meal replacement bars don’t actually work? It’s a very volatile industry.”
Plaintiffs in the F-Factor case allege that the company’s high-fiber powders and supplements caused “intestinal blockages requiring emergency surgery, debilitating stomach pain, eating disorders, severe allergic reactions, and other serious and permanent injuries.”
Scott Haworth, Zuckerbrot’s attorney, said in an email that “many of the claims” have been “proven false by third-party toxicology testing.” He said the plaintiffs did not “provide any medical records or evidence of injuries. The reason is obvious: the case has no legal and factual basis.” Haworth added that Zuckerbrot is a trained nutritionist. She received her master’s degree from New York University.
According to a 2022 McKinsey & Company report, the global health market (which includes areas such as nutrition, fitness, sleep and mindfulness) was estimated to reach $1.5 trillion last year, with annual growth rates of 5% to 10%. McKinsey estimates that this number exceeds $450 billion, growing at more than 5% annually. The company found that influencers were an important part of the market.
Liver King’s Johnson did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit. A consumer lawsuit filed in December in New York state court seeking to represent an entire class of customers was later voluntarily terminated in March without explanation. The Federal Trade Commission declined to comment.
$300 fitness plan
Last February, the state of Texas sued Brittany Dawn Davis, an internet celebrity with more than 1.3 million followers on TikTok. The state alleges that she defrauded thousands of customers with her nutrition and fitness programs, which ranged in price from $92 to $300, promising customers customized coaching that they didn’t receive.
At least 14 people seeking refunds cited eating disorders in their complaints and said Davis “offered aerobic exercise and low-calorie macronutrient recommendations that were only appropriate for those who needed to lose weight, not gain weight.”
In June, Davis agreed to pay $400,000 to settle the lawsuit.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has also filed a lawsuit. In 2020, it sued Teami LLC, accusing the tea and skin care company of making deceptive health claims and paying social media influencers for endorsements they did not fully disclose. The agency said Teami improperly claimed its tea could fight cancer, unclog arteries and treat and prevent the flu. The case settled for $15.2 million.
Whelan, the consumer sciences professor, expects lawsuits against influencers to increase, but said the FTC’s updated guidance is a “warning flag” for the industry.
“The legal system is starting to say: Can we use some of the existing regulations to target the worst offenders?”