Weight-Loss Products and Plans

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The value of being thin, especially for women, started as a largely American preoccupation. In the 1890s, as society women began taking up sports, the trendier fashion magazines began featuring "Gibson Girls" as the image of the ideal woman. Illustrator Charles Dana Gibson originally created these images for Life, portraying women who were youthful, slim and athletic.

While full-figured women made a brief comeback during World War II, several factors served to keep "thin" the ideal body type through the decades. One theme equated thinness with health, while images repeated in advertising and entertainment media linked thinness with happiness and success.

Insurance company charts

In 1901, insurance companies, in an attempt to demonstrate a connection between obesity and shortened life expectancy, began charting ideal weights for men and women. This development helped make the bathroom scale a standard household item and led to the creation of a variety of weight-loss products.

Ironically, one of the first major pitches promising weight loss to women was not for a weight-loss product but for a cigarette. During the 1920s, ads for Lucky Strike cigarettes advised, "To keep a slender figure, reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet." These ads helped the American Tobacco Co. spring from third place in sales in 1926 to No. 1 in 1930.

"Diet miracle" ads from the 1930s often featured a photograph of a svelte society woman accompanied by a personal narrative about how she lost a substantial amount of weight in a short time. For example, a company called Wallace ran personal story ads with a headline that read, "It's so easy to do! No starving. No punishment." These ads often included a "free trial" offer.

In 1939, Carlay Co. and its ad agency, Presba-Fellers-Presba, began marketing a product called Ayds Candies. Carlay, which was acquired by Campana Corp. in the 1950s, changed the basic ad formula. Instead of merely featuring a single photograph showing a successful dieter, Carlay's testimonial ads included "before" and "after" shots featuring actual named women and their personal diet stories. Headlines such as "I got stuck in a church pew before I lost 70 pounds" or "When I was fat, I had to act happy. But at 128 pounds, I can be myself" propelled Ayds Candies to the status of a well-known brand name.

After a short hiatus during World War II, the proliferation of diet products continued. So did the emphasis on a slim figure: From 1951 to 1953, the number of magazine articles on dieting listed in the "Reader's Guide to Periodic Literature" increased fivefold.

The extravagance of the claims also increased and, in one case, helped bring down an ad agency. In the 1950s and early '60s, Drug Research Corp. marketed a weight-reducing product called Regimen. The advertising produced by Kastor Hilton Chesley Clifford & Atherton claimed that buyers could lose weight with "no diet."

In June 1960, the government indicted Drug Research for fraudulent advertising and, in a surprise move, named Kastor Hilton, then billing about $20 million, a co-conspirator in the case. In May 1965, in a controversial decision, both advertiser and agency were convicted, with Kastor Hilton fined $50,000. The agency never fully recovered its reputation and closed in 1967.

The launch of Weight Watchers

In 1963, a new approach was introduced to the market, when Weight Watchers founder Jean Nidetch began inviting friends to her home to discuss effective strategies for losing weight. Since its inception, Weight Watchers has provided guidelines for meal planning and lifestyle changes; sponsored camps for overweight adolescents; marketed its own line of food products, including frozen meals, available at most major grocery chains; and in 1968 launched its own magazine. Much of Weight Watchers' success as an international organization, however, can be attributed to treating its dieters as members of a club.

Weight Watchers has historically advertised in women's magazines and on TV programs popular with women, but in 1969, it ran ads in Business Week, Newsweek and Time using a photograph of an overweight business executive stuck in his chair. The caption, "An executive should carry extra weight on his shoulders but not on his hips," from ad agency Ted Barash & Co., sought to expand the diet appeal to the men's market.

During the 1970s, still with Barash, Weight Watchers launched its "Great American Shape Up" campaign with print ads in Woman's Day and spots on NBC's "Tonight Show." In the 1990s, Weight Watchers advertising began using celebrity spokespersons, eventually hiring Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, as spokeswoman for its "points" system.

The celebrity spokesperson has been a staple in industry advertising since its early days. When Lillian Russell, a well-known actress in the 1890s, lost a significant amount of weight, she became a spokeswoman for a wide range of weight-loss products.

Jenny Craig, another modern-day diet system marketer in a group that also includes Nutri-System, Physician's Weight Loss Centers of America and Diet Center, has used celebrities along with "everyman" testimonials in many campaigns. Since Jenny Craig appeared in 1983, spokespersons have included Regis Philbin, Elliott Gould, Cyndi Williams of "LaVerne & Shirley," Jerry Mathers of "Leave It to Beaver" and Jenny Craig herself.

Jenny Craig's one-on-one approach

Founded in 1983 in Australia, Jenny Craig by 2003 had about 660 owned and franchised outlets throughout Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico. Rather than the group approach, Jenny Craig promotes one-on-one consulting,

During the 1980s, the company focused on information-oriented advertising explaining why its programs work. During the 1990s, its messages concentrated on lifestyle issues. While customers include both men and women, advertising has been aimed at professional women ages 35 to 55 and, in particular, those who failed at previous diets. In 2000, Jenny Craig named Doner, Southfield, Mich., as its ad agency after six years with Los Angeles-based Suissa Miller.

The history of Nutri-System, a company founded in 1973, exemplifies many of the ups and downs of the industry. During the 1970s, its ads emphasized before-and-after type testimonials; media spending was heavy. In the wake of financial troubles, it closed its outlets and began restructuring, using direct-response advertising and a Web site to sell consumables such as foods and supplements directly to customers.

Slim-Fast Foods Co. represents a different branch of the weight-loss industry, emphasizing its products as calorie-controlled meal replacements. Slim-Fast and Ultra Slim-Fast drinks, along with powders and snack bars, are distributed through major grocery chains.

In 1997, the company launched a program called "Jump Start," aimed at people interested in quick weight loss. Possibly setting out to compete with pharmaceutical products just coming into the market, the campaign from Grey Advertising, New York, used consumer testimonials based on customer letters.

In 1993, the Federal Trade Commission investigated the weight-loss industry and issued consent orders requiring increased disclosure in advertising and marketing. These orders required that a personal weight-loss claim be accompanied by a disclaimer indicating that results might vary and that weight loss could be temporary. The orders also required that companies choosing to use comparative charts in their ad materials improve their methods for qualifying the data they use as well as their research methods.

A new wave of weight-loss products hit the market during the 1990s. Very much reflecting a culture amenable to taking drugs for virtually any ailment, companies began introducing newly approved prescription drugs designed to help people lose weight. In 1996, American Home Products began to market Redux; in 1998, Knoll Pharmaceuticals introduced Meridia; and in 1999, Hoffman-La Roche brought out Xenical. All three were introduced with large budgets, thanks to relaxed restrictions on the advertising of prescription drugs directly to consumers.

Redux, among others, relied on fenfluramine, an ingredient common in many herbal and over-the-counter supplements, and was taken off the market in 1997 due to concerns about potentially fatal side effects. Meridia, which acts as an appetite suppressant, met with less than overwhelming success when commercials first hit the airwaves, while Xenical, a lipase inhibitor, which blocks the absorption of dietary fat, tallied higher early sales.

Traditionally, the strong period for ad spending in the industry has been January through April. Weight-loss marketers often spend up to 50% of their year's budget after Christmas and before the bathing-suit season. According to Competitive Media Reporting, Weight Watchers, which was sold by H.J. Heinz Co. To Artal Luxembourg in June 1999, spent $26 million on advertising in 1999. Other industry leaders were Hoffman-La Roche ($145 million in ad spending), Slim-Fast ($102 million), Knoll ($64 million), Jenny Craig ($22 million) and Nutri-System ($729,000).

As the 21st century got under way, direct-to-consumer advertising was expected to grow, as were sales via the Internet, a medium that proved particularly suitable for providing data and making disclosures in a discreet way. Several diet companies launched online, such as eDiets, offering customized diet and fitness plans as well as online support and e-mail newsletters.

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