On November 2, 2016, a Florida Federal District Court issued a $29 million judgment against the marketer of Pure Green Coffee extract weight-loss pills in a deceptive advertising suit brought by the Federal Trade Commission. District Court Judge Steven Mayberry of the Middle District of Florida ordered defendant Nicholas Congleton to disgorge $29 million in net revenue for deceptively marketing Pure Green Coffee extract pills with debunked scientific research, fake news sites, and paid testimonials all touting the pills’ weight-loss benefits.
Congleton created a business selling Pure Green Coffee extract pills after watching an episode of the “Dr. Oz” television show on the purported benefits of the product. Congleton and his co-defendants created a company, built a website, and spent over $9 million on advertising. Congleton advertised Pure Green Coffee as providing “[t]remendous weight loss results,” such as “sixteen percent of body-fat in twenty-two weeks” and “twenty pounds in four weeks.” In fewer than two years, Congleton’s business generated $33.8 million in revenue.
The FTC sued Congleton alleging four different false advertising claims, and moved for summary judgment. The Court granted the FTC’s motion for summary judgment on all claims, finding in each one that Congleton failed to raise a disputed fact.
False Claims of Health Benefits. The Court agreed with the FTC’s claim that Pure Green Coffee advertisements made false or unsubstantiated claims regarding the health benefits or efficacy of their Pure Green Coffee extract pills. Citing the analysis of its nutrition expert that Pure Green Coffee’s claims were “biologically implausible,” the FTC argued that the claims could not be substantiated with competent and reliable scientific evidence, and would therefore likely mislead a reasonable customer. Because Congleton admitted that Pure Green Coffee’s efficacy claims lacked a scientific basis and he failed to rebut the FTC’s expert, the Court granted summary judgment in favor of the FTC on this claim.
False Claims of Scientific Basis. The Court also granted summary judgment as to FTC’s claim that Congleton’s advertisements created an “overall impression” that Pure Green Coffee’s efficacy was backed by scientific evidence. The Court agreed with the FTC that Pure Green Coffee’s ads featuring a man wearing a white doctor’s coat and stethoscope holding a pill, along with references to a “study” using terms including “double-blind,” “randomization,” and “proven results” that created the misleading impression that Pure Green Coffee’s benefits could be proven scientifically.
Deceptive Testimonials. The Court granted summary judgment as to FTC’s allegation that Pure Green Coffee’s ads deceptively used “testimonials” by purported “real people” who were, in fact, paid to appear and promote the product. The Court found the fact that Pure Green Coffee’s testimonialists were compensated was a material fact; the Court also found that a reasonable customer would likely rely on the testimonials, given their prominent placement in Pure Green Coffee’s advertisements.
Fake News Site. The Court agreed with the FTC that Pure Green Coffee’s fake news site, purportedly written by a Women’s Health Journal columnist offering an review of the product’s efficacy, would likely mislead a reasonable consumer. Congleton admitted that the article was false, and that he had no idea if the article’s author actually existed.
Congleton Individually Liable for $29 Million. The Court found that, because Congleton directly oversaw Pure Green Coffee’s marketing campaign and was aware of the advertisements’ falsehoods and misrepresentations, he was individually liable for the deceptive acts of the corporate enterprise he created. The Court rejected Congleton’s arguments that the advertisements constituted mere “puffery” and that the FTC was required to show that actual consumers were misled.