Dr. Oz, Green Coffee Beans, and the Dark Side of SEO

by | Jul 1, 2021 | Business, Content Marketing

This is the story of how one fake nutritionist leveraged a talk show appearance on Dr. Oz to promote a “miracle” solution for weight loss and used unethical SEO tactics to drive consumers to web sites he owned and operated to purchase this useless product.

And here’s why it happened.

Even as legislators have made impressive strides in recent years to expand health insurance coverage for American families, over 35 million citizens are currently uninsured. Without access to qualified medical care, they have grown increasingly reliant on medical advice from nontraditional sources, including influential celebrities on daytime television. Unfortunately, this has provided an opportunity for dishonest individuals with little or no medical expertise to implement manipulative, predatory tactics with the goal of lining their own pockets rather than truly helping viewers address their health concerns.

How Did Dr. Oz Become So Influential?

After a popular 2005 appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show, cardiothoracic surgeon and Columbia University Professor Dr. Mehmet Oz launched an incredibly successful career as a TV personality. In 2009, he developed his own daytime TV series “The Dr. Oz Show” in which he utilizes his medical credentials to offer viewers supposedly credible information on a wide variety of health topics, from losing weight to getting better sleep. This program reaches almost four million daily viewers throughout the nation and has allowed him to become “America’s Doctor.” However, by approaching his show with a critical eye and conducting a little research, it quickly becomes obvious that his show offers little genuine medical advice.

Over the past decade, Dr. Oz has hosted several guests who have used his popularity and authority to make a range of unsupported claims with the purpose of driving viewers to their businesses and increasing sales. The long list of unsupported claims promoted on his show includes that apple juice contains dangerous arsenic levels, that genetically modified foods cause cancer, and that teaching patients to “harness” energy through the practice of Reiki can help them survive dangerous operations. He has even hosted mediums on his program to hold psychic readings and stated that connecting with dead loved ones can reduce stress by showing misleading EEG brain scans. He is also a well-known promoter of homeopathic medicine and markets his own line of homeopathic supplements that he actively promotes on his show.

The tactic of featuring questionable “miracle” products on his show and using false, deceptive advertising techniques to drive sales has been repeated so often during his career that it has earned its own title – the Dr. Oz Effect.

What’s the Deal with Green Coffee Bean Extract?

One of the most lucrative scams perpetuated on The Dr. Oz Show occurred in 2012 with fake nutritionist Lindsey Duncan promoting green coffee bean extract (GCBE) supplements. Duncan claims to be a “naturopathic doctor” and refers to himself as Dr. Lindsay, but he received his only medical degree from an unaccredited, now-defunct natural health college in Texas that the state has deemed “fraudulent or substandard.” In reality, Duncan served as the marketing executive of two different companies, Genesis Today Inc. and Pure Health LLC and designed his marketing strategy around making appearances on popular television shows like The Dr. Oz Show and The View to promote products he sells.

During his 2012 appearance on The Dr. Oz Show, Duncan falsely claimed to be a medical doctor and inaccurately described the effectiveness of the GCBE supplement using severely flawed data, then directed consumers to visit websites he owned or operated using specific keywords without disclosing his conflict of interest. The Oz Effect worked, and Duncan ended up selling $50 million of GCBE supplements. He may have been successful initially, but you will learn below that his tactics soon caught up to him with two high-profile complaints made by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

FTC Complaint Number One

In 2014, the FTC filed a complaint against Applied Food Sciences (AFS), claiming that the company paid researchers in India to complete a clinical trial with GCBE to show weight loss and reduced body fat in 16 overweight adults. Along with the issues involved in using an exceptionally small sample size, the FTC found that the lead investigator of the study manipulated weight and other key measurements, altered the length of the trial, and gave false information on which groups were taking the supplement and which were taking the placebo. When the investigator could not find a reputable journal willing to publish the findings, he hired researchers from the University of Scranton to rewrite the article, and these researchers failed to verify the authenticity of the data used in the report. The FTC required AFS to pay $3.5 million for its role in the study.

FTC Complaint Number Two

The following year, the FTC investigated Duncan directly for his actions, and the documentation shows the depth of manipulation he engaged in to sell his products. Before his appearance on The Dr. Oz Show, Duncan received an email from the program staff to ask if he had any experience with GCBE and would be able to discuss how it works on the program. Even though he was not at all familiar with GCBE at the time, Duncan’s public relations team responded by accepting the proposed appearance. The program staff did no independent research to verify that he had the credible expertise or education to promote this supplement and did not ask if he had any conflicts of interest before booking him.

Later that same day, Duncan contacted a GCBE manufacturer and submitted a wholesale order for raw material used to make the supplements. He positioned himself to take full advantage of his TV appearance by setting up his own company to produce and sell the product. He edited the script to subtly promote his company’s supplements, emphasizing that viewers should only select “pure” GCBE when shopping online, a keyword he had already linked to his brand. He also recommended 400mg capsules, which his company sold, and suggested that viewers visit specific websites to purchase the supplements. Duncan still failed to disclose his relationship with the companies and drove his Google search result rankings to the top by purchasing Google Adwords and creating multiple fake websites that linked to his own company’s site. Furthermore, he contacted Walmart and other retailers offering to sell them his products.

After the episode aired, Duncan created a carefully orchestrated plan to drive sales – hiring spokespeople for his company to appear on TV and radio without disclosing conflict of interest, paying people to leave online reviews, and filming “customer testimonial” videos using his own employees. Ultimately, the FTC required Duncan to pay a $9 million settlement to consumers to reimburse them for purchasing these useless products. In addition, Duncan’s practice of misleading the public into accepting his health advice based on education and training that he does not actually possess eventually led to the State of Texas prosecuting him for Violations of Texas Education Code and False, Misleading, and Deceptive acts. 

How Was Duncan Successful in Manipulating Consumers?

Anyone in the modern market understands how important search engine rankings are for increasing brand awareness and driving sales. Many businesses utilize search engine optimization (SEO) to optimize content for their prospective customers. They implement legitimate marketing strategies, such as selecting valuable keywords, sharing optimized content, and enhancing the performance of a website to accommodate the preferences of users. On the other end of the spectrum is search engine manipulation, the darker side of SEO that companies use to manipulate rankings and users without offering value.

It may be difficult to distinguish between SEO and manipulation, but the deciding factor is intent – optimization involves improving content and user experience, while manipulation relies on dishonest tricks to deceive search engines and viewers into buying into the legitimacy of a bogus website or product. Duncan used several classic manipulation tactics to prompt the GCBE craze, including:

  • Sharing untrustworthy content
  • Changing or inflating data to appear credible
  • Keyword stuffing (“pure” GBCE)
  • Creating sites with the sole purpose of redirecting to other pages
  • Adding content without value that is designed to confuse search engines
  • Manipulating sales by obtaining a monopoly on GCBE and persuading suppliers to carry his products based on false information
  • Paying people to give fabricated reviews and testimonials.

Final Thoughts – Can We Trust Health Recommendations from Dr. Oz?

The story of Lindsay Duncan, Dr. Oz and green coffee bean extract should serve as a warning to all consumers about how easily they can be manipulated into purchasing useless products, especially by influential celebrities with nationally syndicated TV shows. Unfortunately, this case is not an exception, but serves as just one of many examples in which Dr. Oz and his guests promote unsupported claims of “miracle” cures.

In 2014, researchers published a study in the British Medical Journal to investigate the health claims made by popular medical TV shows, including The Dr. Oz Show and The Doctors. After evaluating 40 episodes of The Dr. Oz Show that aired in early 2013, they determined that only 46% of recommendations could be supported by evidence. Researchers were unable to find evidence to support 39% of claims, and in 15% of cases, the evidence directly contracted the claims made on the show. Not only do guests share false information, they also consistently fail to disclose potential conflicts of interest – these conflicts interest accompanied only 0.4% of recommendations on the show.

Understanding search engine manipulation tactics and how they are used by even seemingly reputable individuals and companies is necessary to protect yourself as a consumer. With the right information, you can avoid falling victim to persuasive claims that exist for the primary goal of making money and ultimately offer you little or no value. By understand SEO and the power of marketing, you can skirt potential scams and protect your loved ones, too.

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chris@iwdonline.com