Sat, Aug 06, 2011 - Page 16 News List

Celebrities as diet spokespeople

Though they crave the kind of publicity that only stars can provide, diet companies are finding that employing the services of people who publicly play out their weight struggles is a risky business strategy

By Taffy Brodesser-akner  /  NY Times News Service, New York

Singer and actress Jennifer Hudson endorses Weight Watchers.

Photo: Bloomberg

She calls it wishful shrinking. Last May, Carrie Fisher showed off her 13.6kg weight loss, a result of 18 weeks on the Jenny Craig diet, to People magazine — the most recent of the company’s series of celebrity spokespeople to reach a major milestone in weight loss.

It’s understandable that diet companies would want to incorporate celebrities in their marketing plans. Consumers believe they “know” famous people — especially forthcoming ones like Valerie Bertinelli (Jenny Craig), Jennifer Hudson (Weight Watchers) and Marie Osmond (Nutrisystem) — and can be inspired by them.

But employing celebrities can be a double-edged sword. When a company advertises a successful but anonymous dieter — say, Melissa K. from Fairfield, Connecticut, who lost 22kg — its target audience never learns how Melissa ultimately fared. Did she keep the weight off? Did she gain the weight back, as well as 22kg more? Only she and her acquaintances will ever know.

Famous people, however, play out their weight struggles under glaring lights. It’s hard to forget commercials of the actress and former Jenny Craig spokeswoman Kirstie Alley lustily drooling over the program’s sanctioned fettuccine, or of her triumphant disrobing on Oprah to reveal her new bikini body in pantyhose.

It’s equally hard to forget photos of Alley, after regaining the lost weight and then some, again on Oprah: this time more conservatively dressed and contrite. Or, more recently, falling with an audible thud during a lift on Dancing With the Stars.

Last year, another diet program, the Fresh Diet, parted ways with its famous “spokesdieter,” the pop singer Carnie Wilson, after she gained weight while under contract.

“It didn’t work out with Carnie,” said Zalmi Duchman, chief executive for the Fresh Diet, which delivers fresh meals daily across the nation. “She dropped like 9kg in the first three months. Then she, I mean, she had to go off of it. There’s no question. She might have eaten the meals, but she ate the meals with a lot of other stuff. She started a cheesecake company.”

Duchman said he didn’t fire Wilson; he chose not to renew her contract. (Wilson and Alley declined to comment for this article.)

The specter of Alley’s and Wilson’s failure on these diet programs has done nothing to deter Nutrisystem and Jenny Craig from gathering a slew of other celebrities to represent them.

But Nutrisystem is being more cautious. The company’s current spokespeople, Osmond and Dan Marino, the former Miami Dolphin, were not used as guinea pigs, said Stacie Mullen, its executive of celebrity marketing, but were approached after news reports that they used the program.

“We have gained our celebrity spokespeople through them being real clients first,” Mullen said. “We learned about Marie as a client of ours through an entertainment magazine.”

Jenny Craig is pursuing celebrity spokespeople more voraciously.

“We are interested in helping any celebrity lose weight,” said Dana Fiser, the chief executive for Jenny Craig.

Indeed, the company employs six current and active celebrity spokespeople: Bertinelli, Fisher, the actress Sara Rue, Jason Alexander, the actress Nicole Sullivan and the reality show personality Ross Mathews.

Not everyone agrees with this strategy. Cheryl Callan, chief marketing officer for Weight Watchers, said she suspected that what she called her competitors’ “parade” of celebrities is a method of distraction.

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