News media amplifies misleading health claims from Dr. Oz and other celebrities instead of correcting them

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — TV personalities like Dr. Oz promote the healthy benefits of many products, including weight loss drugs. Unfortunately, when these influential people get something wrong, a new study finds news outlets do a poor job of putting out the right information. In fact, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University say the news often amplifies these misleading claims, instead of fact-checking them.

“Access to health care information is a cornerstone of the Internet era,” says study co-author Kannan Srinivasan, Professor of Management, Marketing, and Information Systems at CMU’s Tepper School of Business, in a university release. “But the rapid proliferation of medical information in the public domain, including from less credible sources, can pose a serious risk of harming consumers with erroneous or exaggerated claims.”

The Oz effect

While the celebrity physician isn’t the only well-known TV personality promoting the impact of fat-burning products, scientists call the societal impact of these endorsements the Oz effect. Researchers found that when supplements get an endorsement on “The Dr. Oz Show,” it leads to a significant surge in sales.

Study authors looked at data on over 6,000 weight loss products available on Amazon between 1996 and 2014, including product reviews, pricing, and each drug’s key ingredient. They then checked to see how many were recommended on “The Dr. Oz Show” in 2012 — finding 10 key ingredients which appeared on the program.

Overall, 1,800 of these drugs contained at least one of the 10 ingredients endorsed by Dr. Oz. With that in mind, the study finds consumer searches for products containing these ingredients skyrocketed by 30 percent. Additionally, news coverage from credible media outlets overwhelmingly backed up the show’s claims, rather than doing a critical examination of the ingredients.

Buying the hype with few facts

While the public and media buy this “hype news,” researchers say there’s a major concern that these claims are exaggerated and overgeneralized just to attract attention. Moreover, medical professionals say, in many cases, there are few scientific studies backing up these claims.

In fact, the study finds that only one of the thousands of peer-reviewed scholarly articles directly corrected Dr. Oz’s claims about a particular weight loss drug ingredient. There were also few website articles coming from health experts fact-checking the show’s claims or correcting misinformation.

Study authors note that hype news in the mainstream media is often harder to correct than it is on social media. While online platforms frequently tag articles as “fake news” and remove them, hype news stories usually contain portions of truthful claims. This makes it more difficult to label them as misleading without more scientific study.

“The bottom line is that all the media outlets we studied created an information cascade that inflated the hype,” explains Xiao Liu, an associate professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business. “The hype then piqued consumers’ interest in the ingredient, which enabled merchants to offer more products that contained the endorsed ingredient and to charge more for those products.”

“Our study calls for more effective government regulation of OTC products and also of endorsements to address the problem of spreading hype news,” adds Zijun Shi, an assistant professor of marketing at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “Relying on self-policing is unlikely to resolve the issue.”

The study is published in the Journal of Marketing Research.