Noom are conducting an unprecedented marketing blitz, claiming to be a psychological approach to lasting weight loss, “designed by psychologists”. As a clinical psychologist who works with people impacted by dieting and eating disorders, I am witnessing both clients and colleagues being sucked into this idea that Noom is ‘not a diet’, and some are even using Noom as part of their eating disorder therapy.
This is understandable: Noom have launched one of the most aggressive marketing campaigns ever seen (their marketing budget is a mind-boggling $200 million ‘plus’ a year), battering home the message that Noom is somehow an ‘anti-diet’ leader in the field of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) for weight loss.
Actual footage from Noom’s marketing department
But let’s be crystal clear – Noom is a diet. Once you get past all the sparkly psychology marketing, users are given a (very low) daily calorie limit, alongside a condescending ‘traffic light’ system which divides foods into red, yellow, and green, and told to weigh themselves daily. As diets go, this is nothing new. Noom’s app also delivers an array of slickly presented psychological tips and tricks, including a slew of misused concepts from the eating disorder recovery world (ie mindful eating and self-compassion as weight loss hacks), which is terribly confusing for users but make no mistake this is just another diet rolled in unprecedented amounts of glitter.
Noom’s bait and switch marketing deliberately lures in very vulnerable people, including those with eating disorders, by using terms drawn from the body positivity and eating disorder recovery community, such as “anti-diet”, “mindful eating”, and even “diet culture”. The potential for enormous harm is obvious, and there has been an admirable amount of outrage and backlash against Noom for these reasons, including my recent episode of the All Fired Up! Podcast with Dr Alexis Conason.
Noom’s deceptive marketing and diet-denial is disturbing. But this is just the tip of the iceberg of Noom-evil.
Noom market themselves as psychological ‘experts,’ and there’s no doubt that there are extensive psychological strategies at play in this for-profit company. But Noom’s most central psychological ploys have nothing to do with weight loss. Noom psychologically manipulates customers, science, and investors. And they have much broader aims than cornering the weight loss market: Noom’s co-founder Artem Petakov has openly said that they want to “disrupt” healthcare. This is seriously alarming, considering their track record.
Noom: A Company With More Money Than Sense
Born and raised in South Korea, serial entrepreneur Saeju Jeong met engineer Artem Petakov at a Princeton dinner party in 2005. At the time, Ukrainian born Petakov was working at Google Maps, and Jeong was working on a production of Bye Bye Birdie. The pair came up with the idea of launching a health startup, combining technology with exercise.
This decision was not inspired by a strong sense of social justice – neither had ever experienced weight issues – for these tech-heads, this was purely a money making venture. In 2007, they founded “WorkSmart Labs”, which would later become Noom.
WorkSmart Labs launched several apps, including CardioTrainer, a fitness app, and Calorific, a colour coded calorie counting app, both of which failed to give Petakov & Jeong the kind of financial returns they were after. Blending these ideas, and adding AI ‘bots’ to act as robotic ‘weight loss coaches’, they developed an early version of the app called ‘Noom Weight Loss’.
Petakov talking Calorific at Noom HQ in 2013
In the media, Noom’s co-founder Petakov is often referred to as an “expert” in both technology and psychology. While it’s true that he has a Bachelors degree in computer science from Princeton, his psychological training was limited to taking a class on decision making by Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and behavioural economist who pioneered the art of using psychological principles to manipulate consumer behaviour.
Petakov took the psychological manipulation ball and ran with it: Noom are extremely good at convincing investors to give them money. In 2011 venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins became the first to invest in Noom, and this was just the beginning of a veritable geyser of funding – between 2012 and 2015 Petakov & Jeong extracted a staggering $33.1 million (USD) from eager investors. But in spite of the money tree, Noom was unsuccessful: BusinessInsider said that Jeong “spent years burning through venture funding trying to figure out how to become a business.”
Matt Murphy, former general partner at Kleiner Perkins, also said that from the user perspective:
“Churn was such a problem. It was just a massive leaky bucket. Users would come on, use it for a month, and disappear”.
Not only was Noom a leaky bucket, it was also not very effective. Jeong told BusinessInsider that Noom failed to change people’s eating habits, and so “we shut down our product, which our investors were so pissed at us about”.
Noom then finessed their ‘psychology of weight loss’ angle. They created a scientific advisory board of weight loss researchers (one of these, New York based researcher & eating disorders clinician Dr Tom Hildebrandt, has been involved with Noom since 2010, he even has equity in the company). In 2014 they employed freshly minted psychologist Dr Andreas Michaelides (the ink on his PhD was barely dry) to manage ‘research’ and the newly added human Noom coaches.
In 2017, Noom relaunched after receiving yet another injection of investment money led by Samsung (the amount of investment was undisclosed). Since then, Noom have reported stratospheric growth – with revenue increasing from $USD12 million in 2017 to $USD400 million in 2020, with an ‘expected’ revenue of $USD600 million for 2021. Noom have also continued to snaffle eye-watering investments: $USD14 million in 2018, $USD58 million in 2019, and an obscene $USD540 million in 2021.
So why has Noom’s revenue increased by such a staggering degree? Is Noom’s product really that terrific? Have two engineers with a shit tonne of investment money really stumbled upon the Holy Grail – an effective ‘psychological’ approach to lasting weight loss? Or is something much darker afoot?
The Real Psychology Behind Noom’s Success: Dark Patterns
Here’s a clue: in May 2020 a $100 million class action lawsuit against Noom was filed. The complaint states that Noom claims to use a “cognitive-behavioural approach” to offer a “supposedly revolutionary diet” but that “where the psychology most comes into play is getting enormous numbers of consumers to hand over their credit card information for a free trial without realising they will later be auto-enrolled into perpetually ‘renewing’ multi-month diet plans.” According to the complaint, there are two particularly devious features of Noom’s program – first, the subscription must be cancelled by the end of the trial period or it will automatically renew; and second, the trial is bloody difficult to cancel.
Both of these tactics are “dark patterns,” a term coined by User Designer Harry Brignull, who holds a PhD in cognitive science. A dark pattern is a misleading or otherwise deceptive tactic that exploits human psychology in order to manipulate users to do things they don’t really want to do. Dark patterns are deliberate psychological manipulation techniques which benefit companies, not users. Dark patterns create compliance with sales funnels and reduce user’s ability to exercise free choice. Dr Brignull wrote a report for the class action lawsuit, which concluded that Noom uses multiple deceptive design practices.
There’s also a hell of a lot of subtle psychological tactics which ‘nudge’ potential customers into buying their product. Once on Noom’s website, users encounter 2 buttons, which force them to click on either ‘lose weight for good’ or ‘get fit for good’. There’s no opportunity to ‘browse’ to find out anything about Noom or what the program is all about: this is pure hard sell.
No browsing – straight to the sales desk!
Whichever button users press leads them directly into Noom’s 66 step sales funnel. This is ostensibly a ‘questionnaire’ which allegedly helps Noom design the user a ‘tailored program’, but it’s really just a well-known marketing tactic, ‘PAS’ – Problem (have you tried everything to lose weight?), Agitate (make it hurt more), Solve (tell customers that your product is the solution).
A marketing blog described Noom’s massive sales funnel as “nothing short of genius” -weight loss websites that give marketers a hard-on are BIG red flag IMO
Users are asked to input a stack of highly personal information pertaining to their health status (!!) – and are then required to provide their email address in order to reveal their ‘weight loss timeline’.
Dr Brignull’s report notes that this lengthy process creates Mental Fatigue, causing consumers to be less likely to critically evaluate the information about payment which is presented right at the end of the funnel. The exhausting process of signing up to Noom also creates a sense of commitment – by the time you get to the end you feel a sense of obligation to sign up, because you’ve spent so much time inputting answers.
When it comes to payment, there’s a dazzling array of options, and you can sign up for a ‘trial’ for as little as $1. According to Dr Brignull, Noom uses a ‘Trick Wording’ Dark Pattern, using false statements about the level of financial outlay required – such as “RISK FREE 100% GUARANTEED”. They also use the ‘Visual Interference’ Dark Pattern, where important information regarding auto-enrolment is presented in low-prominence text. There’s even a ‘countdown timer’ which serves no purpose other than to pressure people to sign up quickly.
Once you’ve signed up to Noom, another dark pattern emerges – you’re in their “Roach Motel”, in which it’s easy to sign up, but almost impossible to leave. In the USA, the Better Business Bureau lists over 2300 complaints about Noom’s subscription service, and many of the complaints are about their Roach Motel. It’s super difficult to stop your subscription – users have to send a specific message to their ‘coach/bot’. Deleting the Noom app on your phone alone will not cancel the subscription, and there’s no way to cancel from their website. It’s also not clear from their website that Noom is only available via a smartphone app – you can’t use it on a computer – so for people who sign up and don’t own a smartphone, there’s literally no way of getting to the cancellation process.
The Roach Motel ensures that users get stuck in their Noom subscription, which leads us to the next level of darkness. Dr Brignull says that Noom’s entire business model is based on the “Hidden Subscription Dark Pattern”— that is, it silently charges users a recurring fee under the pretense of a one-time fee or free trial. When users sign up for the trial, they need to enter their credit card details. But when the trial period ends, the credit card is charged – without alerting the user. And when users sign up to Noom via their website, the trial period starts that very moment: even if users never download the Noom app, they’re being charged when the trial period ends. The class action lawsuit shows that some users who signed up for a free trial were subsequently charged for an entire year without being informed. And of course once the free or low cost trial is over, Noom is quite pricey – up to $199USD a year, or $66USD a month.
It Gets Darker
The paperwork for the class action lawsuit shows that not only have Noom known about their shifty auto subscription for years, they deliberately designed it so they could increase profits. At a company meeting in 2017, Petakov announced that Noom would change from a limited-period subscription model to an open-ended auto-renew model, meaning that all new users would automatically sign up for potentially life long subscriptions unless they opted out. This was a calculated strategy to increase its revenue and enrollment numbers. He also announced that Noom would be “turning on renewals” for current customers who had made a one time purchase, meaning that users would be included as open-ended auto-renewers, in spite of never consenting to it. The court document states:
“Defendant Petakov made no effort to pretend that Noom had any right to do so, acknowledging that the Company would provide a refund of all such charges to people who noticed the charges and complained about the unlawful conversion”.
Taking money off users and hoping they won’t notice is utterly despicable. Even worse, in a 2018 company meeting, Petakov told attendees that Noom were on ‘final notice’ from their payment processors because they had an unacceptably high chargeback rate (a chargeback rate reflects the numbers of contested transactions a company has). The documents state:
“Mr. Petakov announced that his team had come up with a “solution” to this problem: by charging a small-dollar amount for the previously free trial, Noom would effectively double the number of transactions processed for each auto-enrollment, which would appear to cut the chargeback rate in half.”
So instead of stopping their dodgy practice of stealth auto-renewal, Noom:
“devised and implemented a superficial workaround that would allow it to continue extracting advance, non-refundable auto-enrollment charges from customers despite the slew of complaints Noom and the credit card companies were receiving about this practice”.
It’s not surprising to note that Noom’s stratospheric revenues started in 2017 – the very same year that ‘Defendant Petakov’ essentially announced to the boardroom that the deceptive use of dark patterns would be Noom’s growth strategy.
On February 15th 2022, whilst still insisting that they had done ‘nothing wrong’, Noom $ettled the class action lawsuit, agreeing to pay $62 million back to its outraged users. This is the largest ever cash recovery for consumers in an auto-renewal case.
In an unbearably smug blog post, Petakov & Jeong said:
“While we disagree with the claims made in the suit, we believe the settlement is the best path forward as it allows us to focus our energy on delivering the best possible health outcomes for our Noomers”.
“We’ve done nothing wrong, but here’s $60 million just so we can get back to
They go on to list five changes they’ve made, such as making it easier for people to cancel their subscriptions and to contact customer support, but they don’t mention the auto-renew scheme at all.
However, the settlement does spell the end of auto-renew: now, Noom must send email reminders prior to the end of trial periods, warning users of impending credit card charges. They’ve also been banned from using the language“no commitment” and “100% risk free” on its payment page. In a nutshell, thanks to this wonderful class action, it’s going to be much harder for Noom’s stratospheric profits to come from unsuspecting consumers caught in Noom’s auto-renewal scheme. I for one am fascinated to see what happens to Noom’s meteoric revenues now that their auto-renew tap has been turned off.
Millions of Noom
victims customers may be eligible for refunds once the settlement is approved. If you live in the USA and purchased a Noom ‘Healthy Weight Subscription’ using the Noom website or mobile app between May 12, 2016, and Oct. 6, 2020 you may be eligible for compensation – here’s the website link to join the class action. I encourage as many people as possible to get their money back from Noom – let’s ‘disrupt’ their profits!