WEIGHT-LOSS RIVALS BOOST AD BUDGETS FOR NEW-YEAR RUSH: $30 MIL SPENT THIS MONTH ON ATTEMPTS TO STOP 4-YEAR DECLINE

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The advertising floodgates are opening in the weight-loss industry, with diet programs pouring up to 25% of their annual budgets into new-year campaigns.

International and Jenny Craig Inc. are expected to spend a total of about $30 million on TV and print pitches this month in an effort to reverse a four-year sales slide. The declines have been exacerbated by the runaway success of prescription diet pills such as American Home Products Corp.'s Redux.

CRUCIAL PERIOD

Timing is crucial, since an estimated 50% of all business at diet programs occurs between January and April.

H.J. Heinz Co.'s Weight Watchers is increasing ad spending by an unspecified amount; its measured spending was at about $18 million for the first nine months of 1996. It is also shifting a "significant number" of its ad dollars away from direct mail to spot TV and radio, said Wayne Perra, general manager-core business.

Mr. Perra said the defensive move comes after three years of flat spending.

"We thought there would be a lot of competitive spending this year," he said.

Jenny Craig, meanwhile, is running three new advertising programs and is expected to top the $30 million outlay in measured spending Competitive Media Reporting registered for the first nine months of 1996.

NEW JENNY CRAIG PROGRAM

The most significant of the three campaigns backs the company's rollout this month of a physician-assisted medical weight loss program using Redux. The rollout follows a six-month test of the program in eight markets.

On Dec. 26, the company broke a TV campaign from Suissa Miller, Santa Monica, Calif., touting 400 of its centers offering the medically supervised program. Augmenting that campaign are two other efforts: one pushing a seasonal effort offering 19 pounds of weight loss for $19.97, and another breaking this week starring actress Cindy Williams.

The former "Laverne & Shirley" star is seen talking to herself before her weight loss of 25 pounds and after. The overall theme of both campaigns is empowerment, using the tagline, "We did it!"

Weight Watchers is steering away from diet drugs, citing the possible side effects of pulmonary hypertension associated with dexfenfluramine, the active ingredient in Redux.

"It goes against everything we've stood for for 33 years," said Mr. Perra.

ANIMATED EVERYWOMEN

Instead, Weight Watchers is focusing its effort on a rather unusual ad for the category, featuring two animated everywoman characters named Brenda and Elaine. Viewed only from their well-rounded rears, the women discuss their lifelong attempts at dieting, including crazy approaches. A second spot in the series breaks this week showing the women trying to fit into bridesmaid dresses.

The theme line, "You can't argue with success," refers to the 2.5 million Weight Watchers clients who have lost pounds.

The ads were created by Lowe & Partners, New York, which won the account from J. Walter Thompson USA in October.

ANTI-DIET BACKLASH

The diet business isn't just being hit by Redux, said Mr. Perra, but also a general backlash against weight loss that first hit in 1992. "It's a combination of low-fat and no-fat foods, less discretionary time and people beginning to accept the fact that they are overweight. There's a tendency to say, `I'm 10 or 15 pounds overweight and I can live with it,' " he said.

Nonetheless, industry watchers expect a rebound.

"The last three years have been difficult," said David Allen, an analyst with Torrey Pine Securities. "But the business is cyclical and [in the] last year there have been signs of an upturn."

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