CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Christmas cookies are still lingering, and the New Year's Eve Champagne is on ice -- but that's not stopping commercial weight-loss companies from rolling out big ad campaigns to push their latest pound-shedding programs.
"As the economy improves, the structured weight-loss programs like these will benefit," said John LaRosa, of Marketdata Enterprises, a Tampa, Fla.-based market researcher that has long watched the diet market.
It's not unusual for the companies to make a push in advance of the diet season, which begins in January and lasts through about May. But this year's moves seem particularly aggressive.
Nutrisystem, for instance, has hired a new agency of record -- indie shop DonatWald & Haque of Santa Monica, Calif. -- for a campaign that puts more emphasis on real people, a departure from the celebrity-driven ads it has used in the past. (The company had previously used a variety of smaller agencies.) The spots feature videos submitted from Nutrisystem members describing their diet success stories.
Consumers "want to hear from real people who really use the product," said Chris Terrill, the company's chief marketing officer. "We let our consumers really tell our story. It's a bit different for us, and it's in line with our research."
He said the company's ad spending in 2011 will be up slightly, as it increases its presence on network TV and during prime-time programming -- a move to reach a wider audience. In 2009, Nutrisystem had $297 in measured media spending, according to Kantar Media, followed by Weight Watchers at $117 million and Jenny Craig at $33.7 million.
Previous Nutrisystem ads have featured Marie Osmond, Don Shula and Dan Marino. The celebrities are still on contract and will still be used in future ads, Mr. Terrill said.
At the same time, Nutrisystem is revamping its programs to include more fresh frozen gourmet foods, while dropping the price for its 28-day program to $299 a month from $399.
As Nutrisystem turns away from celebrities, Weight Watchers is continuing to embrace one -- singer/actress Jennifer Hudson. Ms. Hudson, the company's chief spokeswoman, appears in ads signing a remake of the song "Feeling Good," which she will also perform on ABC's "New Year's Eve Countdown."
The campaign, called "It's a New Day," pushes the company's newly revamped calorie-counting system, called PointsPlus, which emphasizes food quality as much as quantity. The biggest change is that all fresh fruits and most vegetables now have zero point values.
"Weight Watchers is really trying to convey with its new ads that it is a new day for the company, a new day for anyone who decides to join Weight Watchers or is already on the program and it's a new day for Jennifer," the company said in a statement.
Meantime, Jenny Craig is out with its own new system, called Metabolic Max Program, which tailors weight-loss programs to clients' "unique metabolism to maximize their weight-loss efforts," according to a statement. Armbands are used to monitor calorie burn with data uploaded to an online database, which can also store planned menus.
The three companies dominate the commercial weight-loss center category, which took in an estimated $3.2 billion in revenue last year, according to Marketdata Enterprises. Weight Watchers led with $1.4 billion, followed by Nutrisystem with $527 million and and Jenny Craig with $480 million.
The companies have struggled to lure new members as consumers had less money to spend on themselves, Mr. LaRosa said. Meantime, the share of do-it-yourself dieters has steadily increased to 81% off all dieters, up from 75% a few years ago, he said. But with the economy improving, weight-loss programs now have an opportunity to gain those dieters back, plus new customers who have been eating cheaper, less healthful food.
"A lot of people have traded down to junk food," Mr. LaRosa said. "The result of that is people are going to be heavier than ever before. And when they do come back to weight loss programs, they are going to end up staying longer than in past years."