Joyce Wooten had a Lifestyle Lift facelift that turned out much differently than she had anticipated. She says she was awake while an ear, nose and throat doctor performed her facelift and has been dealing with scarring and painful aches ever since the procedure.
(Photo: Matt May for USA TODAY)
A settlement Monday by cosmetic surgery company Lifestyle Lift of a Florida probe into its marketing practices could have broad implications for the chain's extensive national advertising.
The company's agreement with the Florida attorney general requires it to change specific marketing practices, to follow Federal Trade Commission guidelines on testimonials,to stop calling its face lift a "revolutionary procedure," and to refund some customers' money.
The deal comes four years after the company settled a similar probe by New York's attorney general that found evidence that company employees were posing as satisfied customers.
"With two broad state orders that include requirements on federal guidelines, it is a very strong signal to this and other companies to pay close attention to the requirements," says Jodie Bernstein, former director of the FTC's bureau of consumer protection, who recently retired from the law firm Kelley Drye & Warren.
Lifestyle Lift spokeswoman Rebecca Shaw says the company "is not going to call it a revolutionary procedure" any longer and that it began changing its national marketing about a year ago. Lifestyle Lift now acknowledges that its face lift is a "new approach to a well established procedure," she says. The main difference, she says, is that it's done under local anesthesia.
However, under "About Lifestyle Lift" on the company's website Tuesday, the headline reads "Origin of a Revolutionary Approach," and the description goes on to describe the face lift as "groundbreaking."
In a 2011 series, USA TODAY reported that plastic surgeons and some customers questioned the company's promotions. Former patient Joyce Wooten, who filed a complaint with Bondi's office, claimed Lifestyle Lift's advertising suggested it was a painless procedure with a quick recovery, when she had a very different experience.
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Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's office did not spell out exactly what Lifestyle Lift did wrong. And unlike former New York attorney general Andrew Cuomo's biting 2009 comments that called Lifestyle Lift's marketing "cynical, manipulative and illegal," Bondi was reserved after the settlement Monday.
"Lifestyle Lift has agreed to change its marketing materials and practices to eliminate any possible consumer confusion about its services," Bondi said in a press release.
Bondi's probe, according to a 2011 statement for USA TODAY, was into Lifestyle Lift's advertising of a "facial rejuvenation procedure that is purported by them to be safer and less expensive than other traditional procedures, totally individualized for the client, and offers a quicker recovery time." The office was looking at possible violations of the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act.
Under other terms of the Florida settlement, Lifestyle Lift also must disclose any compensation made to models used in its advertisements and other materials and must state what facial rejuvenation services were performed on the models in company marketing materials.
The company must also pay Florida's legal fees and contribute $25,000 to a fund called Seniors v. crime.
"It's a disappointing result for an investigation into practices of Lifestyle Lift that have knowingly been deceiving potential patients," says Florida plastic surgeon Adam Rubinstein.
If patients shown in ads "are being compensated in inappropriate ways, it violates the ethical guidelines of our society and our board and is tantamount to false advertising," he says.
The pool of consumers eligible for a refund is very small. Florida consumers who sought services between June 1, 2009 and June 10, 2013 may be entitled to obtain a refund, but only of their down payment or prepayment if they didn't have the surgery. They must submit a claim form by Sept. 8.
Lifestyle Lift uses oral sedatives and injections of lidocaine before it performs surgery. Surgery facilities generally don't have to be accredited unless intravenous sedation is used to put patients into what's known as a partial sleep "twilight" state. Lifestyle Lift founder David Kent told USA TODAY in 2011 that its centers have all the emergency equipment accreditation companies would require.
Lifestyle Lift is now working to have all of its centers accredited and about half are now, Shaw said late Tuesday.
FTC's advertising guidelines are designed to "keep advertisers from running afoul of federal advertising law," says spokeswoman Betsy Lordan. Advertisers that don't follow the guidelines could be investigated and charged with violating the FTC Act, says Lordan, who wouldn't comment on whether the commission was investigating Lifestyle Lift.
Jayne O'Donnell, USA TODAY