Bally's loses hardbodies: Health clubs go real to lure Average Joe

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Forget gleaming hardbodies and perfect biceps in the newest wave of health-club advertising.

After decades of presenting impossible-to-achieve, idealized body images in its marketing and advertising, key players in the $14.1 billion health club industry are starting to feature pudgy, average-looking folks in order to lure the 66% of overweight Americans into their facilities.

Bally Total Fitness, the nation's leading health-club operator, admits its previous strategy was wrong. In a record number of new national TV spots breaking this week, Bally will spotlight regular people struggling with physical tasks, in its new approach to pushing fitness.

In one of seven 30-second spots, a man who is clearly not buff has trouble lifting his dog into his sport-utility vehicle. In another, a man watches helplessly as he's unable to return tennis balls served to him on a court. The spots continue the "Every Body Needs Something" theme Chicago-based Bally's introduced late last year via Rocket- Science, its in-house agency that also has offices in New York.

"Featuring perfect-looking people wasn't working, and our new direction is very research-driven, using humor and reality to speak to the actual market," said Martin Pazzani, who was named chief marketing officer for Bally's last fall as it was preparing to announce a loss for 2003. (Bally's revenue was up 2% in the first quarter of this year vs. last year, as it recovers from difficulties associated with switching accounting firms, which prompted a probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission.)

The 400-unit chain reports memberships are up 33% so far this year, as part of an overhaul that included new pricing and aggressive integrated marketing, including online and direct-response efforts. This round of ads includes three Latino-targeted spots, its first developed specifically to address Hispanic culture, created by La Agencia de Orci & Asociados, Los Angeles. The company will not comment on planned spending this year for the 4 million-member chain, but its budget is estimated at $60 million to $70 million. Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative, New York, handles media buying; direct response is handled by A. Eicoff & Co., New York.

kinder, gentler tack

Coming up fast behind Bally is Curves International, whose kinder, gentler approach to workouts has swept the fitness industry, soaring from one outlet in 1992 to nearly 7,000 today. Total members have reached 2.7 million; it's now reportedly the No. 2 franchise operation in the U.S. behind Subway.

Targeting time-pressured women with a simple, 30-minute workout format and monthly dues averaging about $30, Curves introduced its first-ever national TV campaign last year via Publicis Groupe's Publicis, Dallas. That campaign continues this year with national spot TV executions featuring "women who look like regular soccer moms, whose average size is 14," said a Curves spokeswoman. Spending is estimated at $30 million to $50 million.

Bally's has taken note. The fitness industry "has traditionally been unfriendly to people who were out of shape, and that's why Curves took off so well," said Mr. Pazzani.

Others are trying to copy Curves' success. Lady of America Corp., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., claims 300 franchisees of its fast-growing Ladies Workout Express using the 30-minute workout plan, and plans several hundred more by yearend. No details about national advertising were available.

30 minutes for men, too

Other upstarts on the franchise-driven, 30-minute women's workout model include Slim and Tone, Yardley, Pa., which has nearly 100 outlets open and was founded by Betsy Ludlow, a former senior marketing executive for American Express. Also new is Cuts for Men, mirroring the 30-minute approach but with heavier-duty machines, said John Gennaro, president and founder of the operation that has several dozen centers and hopes to have close to 200 by yearend.

Even full-service fitness centers such as the No. 2 operator, San Ramon, Calif.-based 24 Hour Fitness, have introduced a 30-minute workout program called "Xpress." The 2.7 million-member chain is marketing the workout through many of its 300 outlets. Media buying on the estimated $20 million to $40 million account is handled by Interpublic's Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston; Publicis & Hal Riney, San Francisco, handles creative. For the first time, the Olympics this year will have an official fitness-center sponsor in 24 Hour Fitness, which will launch special advertising and promotion in the next few months.

But many full-service health clubs, including Gold's Gym, with 550 outlets, still push buffed-up bodies along with everyday types in national TV spots and promotions, by Colby Partners, Santa Monica, Calif.

Overall, health club membership grew 8.5% last year, according to the International Health Racquet & Sportsclub Association, Boston, and about a third of members do not renew after a year.

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