January is generally a time of “belt tightening” after the holidays. But in the U.S., belt tightening is not always easy. The weight loss industry is one industry that always booms in January. Estimated to be about a $60 billion business in the U.S., this business is on trend in a country in which almost 65% of the adult population is considered overweight or obese. Government statistics on obesity show a dramatic increase, from 20 years ago, in the percentage of the population that is overweight.
The New York Times published an article on the weight loss industry on Jan 6th. Spending by the big three weight loss players is expected to grow by double digits. Weight Watchers International spent close to $120 million last year and Jenny Craig spent another $34 million.
Jennifer Hudson, the new spokesperson for Weight Watchers, looks great belting out a powerful ballad of strength “It’s a New Day” in ads that broke this fall, and dialed up big as the new year approached. Ms. Hudson, who reportedly has dropped from a size 16 to a size 4 by losing 80 pounds on the Weight Watchers program, is known by millions from her American Idol days and then on to further fame in the movie Dreamgirls. This is a very stylish campaign from McCann Erickson, a unit of the Interpublic Group of Companies, which began using Ms. Hudson in April 2010. Weight Watchers advertises in the Fall (Back to School), Spring (right after Easter) and Winter, (i.e., New Years resolutions), with Winter naturally being their #1 season to sign up new users at $40/month.
Weight Watchers is a top-rate program driven on lifestyle change. They use a simple points approach where consumers do not have to count calories, but just have to stay within their allocation of points. Weight Watchers has overhauled its points program, now called Points Plus, with an emphasis on higher points for processed foods and fewer points for fresh fruits and vegetables (e.g. 100 calories of fruit or vegetables are free while 100 calories of potato chips add several points). There is also a clear recognition of the negative weight consequences of carbohydrates.
Weight Watchers however has struggled through 2009, declining 8.8% due to the company’s claimed effect of a bad economy reducing this type of discretionary spending. Internationally, the declines have not been as severe as in the U.S. Their one bright spot has been their on-line membership program that grew 5% in 2009, growing from 10% to 14% of revenues in 2 years, while all other memberships fell according to their respective annual reports. Another issue the company faces may be that according to the research company, NPD Group, the percentage of women who say they are on a diet declined from 36% in 1991 to only 25% today.
There seems to be more riding on Ms. Hudson and this new campaign than a great advertising idea. It is taking more than traditional pressure to get folks to do the work of losing weight.
Micheal Rosenwald, in a Washington Post article, argued that our economy is structured in a way that will keep obesity on the rise for some time to come. Our convenience foods products, fast food, quick meals on the go and large portions have replaced at-home food preparation of moderate size meals. Our lives are sedentary, and we have come a long way from the days of true physical labor for workers where women prepared meals that required hours in the kitchen. Women are in the workforce now. We are an affluent society, and don’t want to go back to the lifestyles of old (where we were thin). we are enjoying life, yet hate the result to our bodies.
So the weight loss industry lives on the promise of hope and quick results. After we have indulged in far more calories and fewer workouts than our bodies required all year, we wake up with a renewed willpower and focus. As if on cue, we are enticed with a success story from an admired celebrity who has a successful weight loss story and looks great.
Is public health a victim of the shortcomings of the 30 second ad, sustained just long enough to sign up, attend a few classes, and stock our pantries with lean entrees? As a marketer, I believe this marketing doesn’t seem to be working for the public health. The goals of individual corporations’ sales targets seems not to be making material change in our waistline. These ads are admirable in what they do short term, but these companies alone cannot make a dent in our growing problem.