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Sunday, May 19, 2024

A Brief History of Instagram’s Trouble With ‘Weight-Loss Tea’

Do you want a lithe, toned body that absolutely does not take multiple photo-editing apps to achieve? Do you want to be a person whose hair and makeup look red-carpet-ready immediately after leaving the gym? Do you want to eat only photogenic smoothie bowls and be utterly unfazed by the fact that they are cold yogurt soup? Try this tea! The 30-Day Detox Starter Pack is now only $85—just use my promo code below. Oh, by the way: #ad.

On Instagram, gorgeous influencers peddling “fitness” or “detox” teas (along with “hair vitamins,” “appetite suppressant” lollipops, and other supplements) are so common your eyes have probably stopped seeing them. Everyone on the platform seems to start their day by slurping down some concoction of herbs, mushrooms, or algae powders. Among the most ubiquitous tea companies claiming to be able to help you lose weight, stop your migraines, unclog your arteries, and cure cancer and the common cold is Teami, whose products have been promoted by celebrities like Cardi B.


Naturally, no scientific evidence exists to support the claims, and the influencers who work with Teami routinely fail to disclose that they’re being paid for the posts. Today they had to answer to the Federal Trade Commission, which has made an official complaint about the company’s misleading marketing tactics. The FTC wants Teami to forfeit $15.2 million, the sum total of its questionable sales. Neither Teami nor Cardi B immediately responded to request for comment.

Teas promising improbable results—most often related to weight loss—have been a staple of Instagram influencer marketing for at least five years, which constitutes half of the app’s existence. For whatever reason, tea companies have always been especially successful at attracting celebrity endorsements: Kylie Jenner and several other members of the Kardashian clan, rappers Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalea, singer Jordin Sparks, and megapopular fitness influencers like Katya Elise Henry have all promoted teas claiming to help your lose weight and reduce bloating to achieve an Instagrammably flat stomach. Maybe celebrities really love tea; maybe tea marketing is uncommonly lucrative. Considering that Teami is reportedly unable to pay the $15.2 million the FTC has ordered and has settled with the FTC for a much lower payment of $1 million, they might be paying a little too well.

The widespread backlash against these products has been at least as notable as the ceaseless promotion of them. In 2015, UK-based tea merchant Bootea faced criticism for allegedly causing a rash of unwanted pregnancies (nicknamed “Bootea babies”). The tea’s ingredients can decrease the effectiveness of birth control pills, and women claimed the company did not make this abundantly clear. Since then, companies like Teami, FitTea, and Flat Tummy Co (along with the celebrities endorsing them) have faced complaints from people who question not only the lack of scientific backing but the diet culture that promotes thinness as wellness and uses celebrities with access to plastic surgeon and personal trainers to promote expensive products that are unlikely to produce the results customers are looking for. Often, the side effects of these teas include nausea, cramps, and diarrhea. Companies often frame the discomfort as a positive, a sign of “toxins” leaving the body. In reality, nearly all of these teas contain an herb called senna, which is a natural laxative. Any weight lost on a “teatox” is likely to be mostly water—and poop.

In 2018, The Good Place actress Jameela Jamil made headlines by calling out other celebrities, including Khloe Kardashian and Cardi B, for promoting detox teas. “I hope all these celebrities shit their pants in public,” Jamil tweeted. When the backlash has gotten particularly intense, the Kardashians and other celebrities have been known to delete posts praising these products, but the first real consequences of the detox tea drama didn’t appear until 2019. Last year, Instagram announced that it would be restricting posts promoting diet teas, shakes, and lollipops, showing them only to users over the age of 18. The policy also made weight-loss profiteering a violation of community guidelines. If a post included a miraculous weight-loss claim and a commercial offer (like a discount code), it was headed for a ban.

Which would seem to put an end to the problem, but, as the FTC complaint against Teami demonstrates, it has not. It’s too easy to substitute “weight loss” for words like fitness, detox, and wellness, and the allure of these products is too strong. It doesn’t matter that Goopified products like Teami’s make promises on which no satchel of herbs could deliver. Their marketing strategy is designed to create a yearning for “quick fix” weight loss so intense it overrides common sense, especially in a social media culture optimized for aspirational photos that distract from the already hard-to-find small print. It’s encouraging to see the FTC taking an interest in an issue often dismissed as frivolous, but it will only be effective if it’s just one of many complaints to come. Considering those alleged Bootea babies are in kindergarten now, it’s also years late. And that’s the tea.

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