Advertisements for homemade diet products, supplements, and other weight-loss products are common on Facebook, with many people making money from re-selling these items through the platform.
Imagine, however, if you were to stumble upon a Facebook advert for diet products that had your photo on it, used without your permission.
Professional photographers and models can run afoul of these issues often thanks to the relative prominence of their work.
This is exactly what happened to Emelia Vermeulen, a South African model with an impressive portfolio that includes campaigns for Pringle and photoshoots for Marie Claire.
In July 2019, Vermeulen received an alert from Facebook’s face recognition system that her face had been used in a number of posts by Down Size Slimming, a South African company which sells diet products through representatives.
Her image was being used to advertise a product named “Gummy Berry Juice” and various other products which promised to deliver fast weight loss.
Conflict over advert
Vermeulen began to contact the representatives individually to try and get the adverts removed, but they continued to proliferate on Facebook.
“On 31 July 2019, I sent the company a message on Facebook alerting them to the fact that I know of the advert and don’t want my image to be included with it,” she told MyBroadband.
“They responded by saying they will take it down and that they got it on the Internet under ‘royalty-free images’.”
The image in question is not a royalty-free stock photo and was commissioned by Barron clothing for their online catalogue.
“Barron paid me to shoot their catalogue, so the image must have been retrieved from their site and manipulated to have Down Size Slimming’s logo on,” Vermeulen said.
In January 2020, Vermeulen received another tag request from Facebook’s face recognition system – the weight-loss advert which used her image was being circulated on the social media platform again.
Below is the original photo licensed by Barron and the “Gummy Bear Juice” advert circulated by Down Size Slimming representatives on social media.
Effect and endorsement
The use of Vermeulen’s image in this context is problematic for many reasons, including its potential effect on her profession and the nonconsensual endorsement of Down Size Slimming’s weight loss products, which she does not believe are effective.
“I am someone who prides myself in having a natural and healthy lifestyle,” she said.
“I eat healthy food, I exercise often, and I do not like that someone might see this image and think that’s how I get my results – by proxy, I would be a liar.”
She added that her professional career could also be affected by this due to rules surrounding conflicting work.
“I cannot cast for a Volvo TV commercial if I did any work for a different car company of any kind in the last five years,” Vermeulen said. “I cannot cast for Charles Grieg jewellery if I have been associated with another jewellery brand, etc.”
Companies often do background searches on models to determine whether they fit the brand or not, and Vermeulen said she would be embarrassed to be tied to Down Size Slimming’s products.
“Companies often Google you or look at your work and decide from there whether you are good for their brand or not, and being tied to a weight-loss product that is named after a children’s tv programme… that’s not such a good look.”
Vermeulen said that after making a public Facebook post about the use of her photo in the Down Size Slimming advert, she was met with disparaging remarks by a number of the company’s representatives, with some reportedly telling her that she should be grateful for her photo being used in their advert.
She said that the problem of using copyrighted images without permission requires more awareness from private businesses and consumers.
“It is taking something that is not yours, saying that it’s originally yours and then making a profit from it,” she said. “One may even call it theft.”
“Surely if you’re selling a product you would want to be honest about what that product does? Would a plastic surgeon have pictures in his portfolio of another doctor’s rhinoplasty?”
Removal and apology
MyBroadband reached out to Down Size Slimming owner and founder Rozanne Fernandes, who apologised profusely for the circulation of the image.
She said that the business had asked Barron about re-selling their clothing, as they wanted to brand it with their logo.
“As we were in the process of talking to Barron and waiting for their reply, we then started advertising it so that our clients could see how each shirt will look with our logo on,” Fernandes said.
“One of our agents (without my permission or knowledge) then added the photo in question with our logo to our slimming adverts, and it was then seen by our other agents and spread over social media.”
After receiving a message from Vermeulen in July 2019, Fernandes informed the representatives to remove the image immediately and apologised.
She said the advertisement was circulated again in January 2020, again without her knowledge or permission.
She discovered this after Vermeulen published a public post denouncing the use of her image in the advertisement which continued to be shared by Down Size Slimming representatives.
Fernandes said she contacted the agent who had shared the image and who had interacted with Vermeulen’s Facebook post and told them to remove the advertisement immediately, reprimanding them for their behaviour.
“We are a registered company and a very well-known company, and we do not condone such behaviour,” Fernandes said.
“We apologize for any damage caused, if any, to Emelia Vermuelen, and we have made sure that this or something like this will never happen again by Down Size Slimming.”
MyBroadband asked the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) about the regulatory status of Down Size Slimming’s “Gummy Berry Juice” product, which includes the following ingredients: Bioplus, Kelp, diet capsules, and Senekot (a stimulant laxative).
“The South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) can confirm that no record of the product Gummy Berry Juice was submitted for registration in terms of section 14(2) of the Medicines and Related Substances Act, 1965 (Act 101 of 1965),” SAHPRA said.
According to the regulator, any products that purport to be used for medicinal purposes are regulated under the Medicines and Related Substances Act.
“All products, including slimming tablets and supplements falling under a group of medicines commonly referred to as Complementary Medicines were called up for registration in 2013, by way of amendments to the General regulations.”
“This means that a product claiming to be useful for a medicinal purpose or for a particular clinical condition (including obesity or undesirable weight gain) intending to be sold in the Republic of South Africa must be licensed as a health product before doing so.”
The regulator noted that there is an increasing number of these “complementary medicines” being sold in South Africa without being registered by the authority.
“For all these unregistered products SAHPRA cannot assert or confirm their safety, efficacy, or quality.”
“SAHPRA also does and can compel any applicant who does not submit the required data as called for by the Authority to have their product removed from the market and cease the sale thereof,” the regulator added.
Down Size Slimming did not respond to queries regarding the regulatory status of its products, which include meal replacements, fat-burner capsules, slimming drops, and fat-burning gel.