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Diet Company Ads Are Mixing Fame With Physique : Marketing: Celebrity endorsements have helped boost profits--and also fattened the wallets of some slimmed-down stars.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda shaved nearly 40 pounds off of his famous frame this year in a highly publicized wager with his players, there were two big winners.

One was a group of Nashville nuns who received the proceeds from the $50,000 bet. The other was Lasorda, who was hired as a pitchman for the liquid diet supplement he used.

Lasorda thus joined the growing ranks of celebrities earning fat salaries and other inducements for slimming down, a group credited with boosting diet company sales by as much as 100% in recent years.

Marketing experts say Hollywood heavyweights such as Elliot Gould, Susan St. James and Lynn Redgrave, and even popular local radio personalities such as Bill Keene and Joe Lyons, have helped to revolutionize the way ultra-competitive weight reduction programs are promoted.

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Diet advertising, once the domain of frighteningly fat people depicted in before and after photographs, has inspired a marriage of two great American obsessions, fame and physique.

People apparently draw inspiration from the sight of Lasorda sans a few extra chins or a shapely St. James, even if they lack access to the same support system as the stars, such as private trainers, nutritionists and agents hounding them to slim down for an upcoming role.

“Many individuals genuinely identify with these people,” said USC marketing professor David W. Stewart. “They would like to be as attractive, as famous and as successful as these celebrities. And one way to take on their personas is to use a product they endorse.”

Lasorda’s persona is about as deeply ingrained as any. Until recently it revolved around food--lots of food. The Dodger manager enjoyed a legendary reputation for pasta consumption and was reputed to have once downed more than 100 oysters before a ball game.

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He was also tied to a seemingly endless number of food and indigestion products, including frozen pizza, spaghetti sauce, antacid tablets and a chain of restaurants bearing his name.

Lasorda said he saw the light last spring, when pitcher Orel Hershiser and left fielder Kirk Gibson saw him starting on his third plate of linguine and begged him to surrender his fork for the sake of his health.

As part of a widely reported wager, Hershiser and Gibson pledged $30,000 to Lasorda’s favorite charity, the Sisters of Mercy, if he dropped 20 pounds by the All-Star break in July.

Not so widely reported was the fact that Lasorda, 62, also struck a separate deal with the makers of a liquid diet concoction called Ultra Slim-Fast that promised him a lucrative endorsement fee if he dropped the extra pounds by adhering to their weight loss program.

Lasorda, who was courted by representatives of every major diet company, said he settled on Ultra Slim-Fast after team doctors assured him it was medically safe and the owners agreed to pony up an extra $20,000 for the nuns. At 180 pounds, he has since become a traveling guru of girth reduction whose physique is frequently lauded by baseball broadcasters, not to mention in television and print advertising.

“This is a guy who has always been known for loving food,” said Steve Brener of Ultra Slim-Fast, who also happens to be the Dodgers’ former publicity director. “The nation has found out that if Tommy can do it, they can do it, too.”

Company officials won’t discuss their revenue or the terms of the endorsement contract, but those within the diet industry say Ultra Slim-Fast sales soared thanks to Lasorda, especially among middle-aged men who are not ordinarily swayed by weight loss appeals.

“You can’t believe how many people have said I’ve been an inspiration to them,” Lasorda said. “There are thousands of people all over the country losing weight because of this.”

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Noreen C. Jenney, president of the Celebrity Endorsement Network in Woodland Hills, a group that matches stars with advertisers, said people such as Lasorda are well compensated for their work. A diet program endorsement is worth $100,000 to $300,000 a year, Jenney said.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that celebrities are clamoring for the chance to confide their fat-fighting formulas, however, especially when they can command the same kind of fees for promoting cars or beer. Jenney said many stars consider diet ads unseemly. Among them is Elizabeth Taylor, who turned down an offer of $1 million to promote a weight loss program, despite the fact that she has since gone on to author a diet book called “Elizabeth Takes Off: On Weight Gain, Weight Loss, Self-image and self-esteem.”

Analysts say diet companies can afford to offer tremendous salaries to celebrities because theirs is a lucrative business, with revenues now reaching roughly $3 billion a year. The fattest purse belongs to Weight Watchers, which earned about $1.3 billion last year. Ranked behind it are Nutri/System, the Diet Center and Jenny Craig Weight Loss Centres.

Nutri/System spokesman James K. Millard said innovative marketing is an essential tool in the diet business. “There’s usually a high level of distrust,” he said. “So we know what we’re fighting against in the public’s mind.”

The chains spend about $20 million annually on product promotion. In their quest to find celebrity spokespersons who are both popular with the masses and credible, Jenney said diet companies often end up turning to their own membership roles.

Having a highly visible representative can backfire, of course, if the celebrity falls off the diet wagon. So contracts generally stipulate that the prophets of thinness must remain thin themselves.

“If the celebrity regains the weight, it doesn’t speak well for the product,” Jenney said. “The moment they gain 10 or 15 pounds they’ll be on the front of the National Enquirer.”

That hasn’t happened so far. Nor is there any evidence of diet promotions wrecking anyone’s reputation. On the contrary, it is widely believed that Lynn Redgrave revived her sagging career when she started doing commercials for Weight Watchers food products six years ago.

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John Clark, Redgrave’s husband and agent, said Redgrave was unemployable in the early 1980s, because of a run-in with a major studio over her desire to breast feed her child on the set. “Lynn had just gotten fired from the sitcom, “House Calls,” our legal bills were huge and we had just run out of money,” Clark said. “So when this came along, sure we grabbed it.”

Clark said Redgrave, whom he described as a “former fatty,” was a natural choice for spokeswoman because she had used Weight Watchers. Stan Darger, vice president of sales and marketing for Foodways National, the parent company, said Redgrave helped boost sales by 100%. Thanks largely to her ads, Weight Watchers is now the top-selling low calorie frozen food.

Surveys show that customers relate to the actress’s weight problems, Darger explained.

“People identify with her and they also like her,” Darger said. “They know that she had faced a weight challenge and defeated it. Plus, she brings continuity to the product.”

One factor weight-loss promoters such as Redgrave have in their favor is the sheer numbers of fat people. Studies show that obesity remains a major health problem. Roughly 20% of the adult population, or 33 million Americans, were judged to be significantly overweight in one recent survey. Another showed that more than 40% of all adults perceive themselves as fat.

At the same time, surveys show that dieters are far less self-reliant than they once were. In a recent survey of women who consider themselves overweight, 40% said they could not shed the pounds without assistance. Ninety percent of the diet industry’s customers are women.

Dr. William McCarthy, the behavioral research director in UCLA’s clinical nutrition department, said it’s all right if celebrities draw people into weight loss programs if the programs are medically sound. The danger, he said, is when people chose a diet plan in order to emulate their favorite celebrities, and not because they have researched the programs, some of which charge as much as $500 in fees and an additional $50 a week for their food products.

“If people have followed reports of Lasorda’s battle of the bulge, then they know he’s been successful, and they make the inference that the product must be pretty good,” McCarthy said. “It’s bothersome in the sense that we wish people were more careful about product claims.”

Yet McCarthy said no one foresees an end to the celebrity diet tie-ins. In a business that turns on the success of direct-response advertising, stars have proven to be especially effective pitchmen. Television advertisers who flash toll free numbers in conjunction with their products say that celebrity endorsements bring in roughly 10% to 15% more business than all other types.

Jim Liljenquist, senior vice president of communications for the Diet Center, said his company’s business jumped 11% to 48% in test markets where their spokeswoman, St. James, was used. Liljenquist said he has a tough time imagining a diet company surviving without a star.

“I can’t say that it’s absolutely necessary,” he said. “But it’s obviously a very popular strategy from a marketing standpoint. It has proven to be very effective.”

St. James, 43, who developed a weight problem after the birth of her fourth child, was hired after she lost 20 pounds on the Diet Center’s program. Liljenquist said the actress, who declined to discuss the program herself, helps distinguish the company from its competitors.

“Our name is almost generic, so we needed a very identifiable individual to set the Diet Center apart as an entity,” he explained. “Susan St. James was just the person to do that, because this is not a hard sell. She is simply speaking from her own personal experience.”

Gould, who advertises Jenny Craig’s program, also draws on his own dieting experiences.

In a telephone interview, the 51-year-old actor said Craig helped him control a serious eating disorder. Gould, who lost 22 pounds in 10 weeks under her program, said he had no qualms about doing a diet commercial. “I’ve come too far and suffered too much in this business to start lying now,” he said. “Besides, acting is all about communicating.”

Coleman F. Kane, advertising director for Jenny Craig International, said the Gould spots are mostly used to introduce the program in new markets. Craig also recently hired actress Susan Ruttan of television’s “L.A. Law,” who lost 42 pounds on the program, as a spokeswoman. The company has found that celebrity endorsements are an essential marketing tool.

“With the celebrities, we usually don’t have to show a ‘before’ type of picture,” Kane said. “That’s kind of tacky. And besides, most people already know what they look like.”

Craig also uses radio personalities as pitchmen, a strategy first tried some 25 years ago and more recently updated by the Nutri/System weight loss chain. Under that arrangement, radio people use the diet for free and discuss the results they’ve achieved during air time purchased by the diet companies. Bill Keene of KNX-AM was an especially effective spokesman for Nutri/System when he took on the nickname of “Skinny Keene,” and even put his wife on the program.

Millard said Nutri/System has grown from 800 centers to nearly 1,500 centers since the radio campaigns started in 1986. The company now contracts with about 1,000 disc jockeys nationwide.

Listeners of country music station KNTF-FM have followed Joe Lyons’ progress as he’s dropped 30 some pounds under the Jenny Craig program. The only drawback to dieting in the public eye, said Lyons, is that even strangers start to monitor your eating habits.

“I can’t walk into a pizza parlor anymore without someone saying I’m cheating,” he said.


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