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Weight-Loss Ads Rise With Scales : Big Push Comes Just After Holiday Feasts, Resolutions to Diet

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

In between reports of traffic tie-ups and early morning drizzle, radio announcer Bill Keene keeps listeners up to date on news of a more personal nature: his weight.

About 1 1/2 years ago, Keene gave listeners of radio station KNX-AM a day-by-day account of his 10-week diet, courtesy of the Nutri/System weight-loss chain. Nutri/System paid for the commercial time and provided its food and counseling free to Keene and other radio personalities nationwide. “Every time I changed my pants size I told (the audience),” said Keene, who lost 35 pounds and 10 inches off his waist.

Now Keene talks about how others have lost weight on the program, often ending his pitch with the line, “Tell them Skinny Keene sent you.”

Keene’s testimonials are part of the $20 million spent annually on advertising by major weight-loss chains, which sell counseling services and sometimes low-calorie foods. Each January usually sees an increased number of such ads as the centers battle for the business of those whose New Year’s resolutions include losing pounds and inches.

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Dieting broadcast personalities, testimonials and before-and-after pictures are prominent tools in industry efforts to win over a highly skeptical audience. Industry executives say they are haunted by past hype and a long line of quacks and frauds.

“There are a lot of overblown and unsubstantiated arguments,” says James K. Millard, spokesman for Nutri/System, which owns and franchises about 1,000 centers nationwide. “There is a sense of tabloid (style) exploitation.”

The job of persuading skeptical consumers, however, seems to be easier at the beginning of each year. As a result, many weight-reduction programs beef up their advertising.

“You go fishing when the fish are biting,” said Jim Palmer, marketing vice president at Jenny Craig International, which operates about 120 weight-loss centers in the United States.

“Going to a weight-loss program will be at the top of the (consumer’s) mind” at the beginning of a year, said Lauri Robison, who handles advertising for the Diet Center chain. “You would need to educate and emphasize the advantages of your program over the next one.”

Weight Watchers International, which sees attendance at weekly meetings in January sometimes grow from 40 people to 150, spends about 60% of its annual advertising budget during the first two months of the year. Weight Watchers also kicks off new programs at the beginning of the year, says Wayne Perra, manager of national advertising and promotion.

Like others in the industry, Weight Watchers ads must draw the attention of the overweight without being offensive.

“All of the people in the industry are very conscious of that,” Perra said. “They tend to be very emphatic in their ads. They try not to be degrading or insulting. We don’t want to offend anyone.”

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Many of the ads also shy away from disclosing prices. Although discounts and coupons are commonplace, some programs charge up to $500 in fees and an additional $50 per week for low-calorie meals and nutritional supplements.

“There is a certain conscious effort not to become a price-oriented or discount-oriented industry,” said Perra at Weight Watchers.

Some consumer advocates question whether weight-control clinic customers are paying large amounts of money for what amounts to inexpensive common sense.

“They try to make their programs look mysterious,” said Herschel Elkins, who has helped create many of California’s consumer protection laws as a senior assistant attorney general. “But there’s nothing mysterious about it. What’s causing the loss is (reduced) intake of food. There’s nothing magic about it.”

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Instead of price, testimonials and before-and-after pictures are the heart of much weight-loss center advertising. But state and federal regulations require that such testimonials and photos be representative of typical weight loss, not extreme cases.

“We have had diet places that were making huge promises,” said Elkins. By altering camera angles, he said, “They showed before-and-after pictures that were being taken the same day.”

Testimonials by radio personalities, such as Keene at KNX, have been used by Nutri/System for nearly two years. Hundreds have taken part in the campaign nationwide, and about 20 are currently participating in the Los Angeles area.

“The deejay is a client like our other 150,000 clients a week,” Millard said, “but they talk to a few more people than the average person could.”

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Nutri/System buys air time on the stations and provides its counseling and low-calorie meals free to the participating radio station employees.

Not all the on-air participants succeeded. “If the deejay should not succeed in reaching his goal, there it is for all the listeners to understand,” Millard said. The situation has happened, he said, but he declined to identify the broadcasters.

Getting stations to agree to take part in the campaign was difficult. “There was resistance, and many questioned whether the station wanted to get involved with a weight-loss marketing program,” Millard said.

There were some concerns at KNX. “You have to investigate from the start,” said station manager George Nicholaw, “that the operation is in place and is well funded and is able to produce the results of its advertising.”

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After being satisfied with Nutri/System’s track record, Nicholaw asked Keene to take part in the program. Keene works on a free-lance basis and is not subject to the station policy that bars its news anchors and reporters from making endorsements.

“I wasn’t too enthused at first,” said Keene, who ad-libbed his spots six times a day. “I was very honest. In the first couple of weeks, I told people ‘I don’t even know if it’s even going to work.”

But after the pounds started coming off, Keene became an ardent supporter whose results and enthusiasm even persuaded co-workers to sign up.

Last week, Keene admitted on the air that he regained 10 pounds during the holidays but intends to take them off in January with the help of Nutri/System. “Tell them not-so-skinny Keene sent you,” he joked.

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Nutri/System and even competitors say Keene has been very effective in drawing new customers despite his sometimes no-holds-barred reports. “I’m still on their maintenance program,” said Keene, who weighs 175 pounds and wears a size 32 trousers. “but I’m not following it very religiously.”

Ex-Ford Executive Gets Position With Infiniti

A former Ford Motor Co. executive has been appointed marketing director for Infiniti, the luxury car division of Nissan Motor Corp.'s U.S. operations headquartered in Carson. Peter Bossis worked at Ford for 15 years, most recently as a manager of sales programs and contests and incentives.

As Infiniti’s marketing director, a new position, Bossis will oversee advertising, programming, sales promotions and merchandising.

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