Feb. 28, 2014 at 7:37 AM ET
Many weight-loss ads draw you in with dramatic "before-and-after photos" of real people. But the truth behind some of those ads is surprising.
One such ad, for Wu-Yi Source Tea, claimed to promote weight loss with glowing testimonials from customers. It said one user of the product lost "68 lbs." and offered her photos as proof.
TODAY spoke to Brook Shadwell, who was named and quoted in the ad as saying, "Wu-Yi Tea is the only one I would have used. I'm extremely happy with the results. Looks like I'll be drinking tea now." The ad is "completely false," according to Shadwell.
"I didn't even drink the tea," Shadwell said. "I haven't even tried the tea. I don't even know what this tea is!"
Shadwell, a California mother of two, really did lose the weight — not from any product, but from a year of hard dieting and exercise. Proud of herself, she posted before-and-after photos on her personal blog.
"They took my image from my blog and pulled it to promote their product," Shadwell told TODAY. "I was completely shocked; that's how I felt initially, very shocked."
In fact, TODAY's investigation found that while many diet ads do use legit photos, the industry is full of tricks, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
One woman's "shrinking" figure has appeared in many ads under many different names: "Jenny Conrad," "Nicole Stevenson," "Kathy Thompson." The truth is, she's a plus-size model from Germany whose image is for sale on stock photo sites. And the "after" shots of her are Photoshopped to make her look thinner.
"It's easy to fake those photos, and so consumers should not think that that reflects what they'll actually get," said Mary Engle, associate director of advertising practices at the Federal Trade Commission.
Personal trainer Andrew Dixon showed TODAY how easy it can be to go from fat to fit in a flash. "I just slouch down, let my gut hang out, and I haven't shaved yet, so I have no definition," he said, posing for the "before."
Then Dixon quickly shaved his face and chest to "give me some more definition"; slicked back his hair to make it appear time had passed between the photos; changed into slimmer shorts, and added some overhead lighting "which brings shadows below my pecs and in my abs, that sort of pops the muscles out more," he explained.
The "after" shot of the same body, taken just five minutes later, looked dramatically different. "That's why you should question all the before-and-after photos in fitness magazines and advertisements," Dixon said.
As for Brook Shadwell, the tea company said her accusations were false, that she consented and was paid for her photos. Shadwell told TODAY that was only after she complained. "It's a fraud," she said.
TODAY found Shadwell's photos in other online ads for products she says she's never used. She said she has tried to contact the companies using her images and "cannot get a response."
"If you see my image, it's false advertising," she said.
The Federal Trade Commission says weight-loss products are one of the most-reported frauds. TODAY reached out to the companies still using Shadwell's photos and never heard back.
Bottom line: Experts say to always be skeptical of any ads promising fast and easy weight loss, no matter what the photos look like.