DIET INDUSTRY POUNDS AT POST-HOLIDAY PLANS

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The diet industry is on a new binge.

Cashing in on consumer anxiety about post-holiday flab, marketers in the $35 billion weight loss category are going hog-wild with a record number of new diet programs and products.

Former CBS-TV newswoman Kathleen Sullivan anchors the biggest-ever TV campaign for Weight Watchers International this month; Nutri/System has bounced back from financial problems with a new profile; and Jenny Craig hopes to lighten its weight loss regimen with humorous videotapes about exercise and willpower.

Even perennial blubber-battler Richard Simmons has added a high-tech twist, a CD-ROM version of his Deal-A-Meal program.

But a new caution haunts diet program marketers this season following Federal Trade Commission charges last fall of deceptive advertising by the top five weight loss centers.

The FTC nixed before-and-after dieting photos and unrealistic money-back weight loss guarantees in ads. But with consumers still looking for a quick fix, the major diet-center chains have come up with new ways of selling the glamorous slim life.

The prime example is Weight Watchers' estimated $50 million network TV campaign from Earle Palmer Brown, New York, showing Ms. Sullivan in the act of losing 81/2 pounds during her first two weeks on the new SuperStart! program.

"She's just like most of our customers-she's 40, she's got some weight to lose and she's already tried all kinds of other things from milkshakes to spas to oodles of diets, but she hasn't lost the pounds," said Jeff Myers, Weight Watchers VP-integrated marketing and communications.

Mr. Myers said the tack used with Ms. Sullivan also sidesteps potentially misleading claims by being "completely realistic" in its depiction of her dieting. "She's credible and the weight loss is real."

Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig Inc. have vowed to challenge the FTC in court. Nutri/System, also targeted by the FTC along with Physicians Weight Loss Centers of America and Diet Center, reached settlements with the FTC.

No. 3 Nutri/System, on the brink of oblivion last spring after a stint in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, is back in business. Rescuer and acquisitions expert Michael Heisley is the unlikely new star of a TV campaign that also broke early this month. Foote, Cone & Belding, Philadelphia, handles, but Nutri/System is said to be looking for a new agency to take all or part of its estimated $40 million account.

Mr. Heisley tells viewers he's on Nutri/System's programs and offers a "personal guarantee" that if customers don't lose 10 pounds in the first month, he will give their money back.

As part of a growing industry emphasis on fitness and total body health, Nutri/System on March 7 will start a new wellness program with the exclusive partnership of Johnson & Johnson Health Management, to be backed by network TV spots. It has also added cosmetic products to its weight loss services as part of diversification efforts.

No. 2 Jenny Craig in late December introduced a Per sonal Weight Management Program emphasizing overall health, fitness and a growing array of tools including books, tapes and humorous videocassettes to help cus tomers achieve their goals.

Marketers of diet supple ments are also experiencing healthy growth again, partic ularly Nestle, whose Sweet Success line of diet drinks and snack bars, introduced in 1993, has helped the category grow by 18.7% in the past year, according to Information Resources Inc.

"The category hadn't seen anything new since Ultra Slim-Fast," said Doreen Ida, marketing manager for Sweet Success at Nestle USA, explaining why the company entered what had been a declining market.

Nestle this month introduced a toll-free number offering free, personalized weight loss programs to consumers; new TV and print ads for Sweet Success also are coming this month from McCann-Erickson Worldwide, Los Angeles.M

Julie Liesse contributed to this story.

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