Weight Watchers' Big Fat Marketing Dilemma

Courtesy Weight Watchers

Jessica Simpson isn’t getting fat. She’s just pregnant again. (Of course, she hasn’t yet confirmed the happy news, but her statement to People—”I’m not going to comment on this speculation”—is, in celebrity baby talk, the equivalent of posting a sonogram on her Facebook page.)

Either way, it’s a potential problem for Weight Watchers, which signed up Simpson as a spokeswoman less than a year ago. The endorsement deal, worth an estimated $3 million, wasn’t supposed to pay out in full until Simpson reached her weight goal. This fall, she was noticeably slimmer, rocking a pair of Daisy Dukes for the paparazzi in L.A.

Now the company has a quandary. No company can control when its spokespeople eat, work out, or procreate, a fact that creates special pitfalls for Weight Watchers and other companies selling the promise of weight loss. Kirstie Alley, star of Fat Actress, starred in commercials for Jenny Craig, only to regain the pounds she’d shed. Even Jared, who slimmed down at Subway, was snapped looking chubby several years after he rose to skinny fame. Weight Watchers declined to comment for this story.

If signing on famous people to lose weight is so unreliable, why do diet companies do it? It certainly would be easier (and cheaper) for Weight Watchers to find a more predictable spokesperson—say, a cartoon character they could slim down at will—or to abandon the spokesperson model entirely.

Grant Johnson, chief executive of Brookfield (Wisc.) marketing agency Johnson Direct, says a company such as Weight Watchers benefits from a recognizable, believable, aspirational person. And Simpson’s $3 million deal was small relative to the $292 million the company says it spent on marketing in 2011.

Still, there’s maybe a better reason for diet companies to abandon stars: They may not be shining so brightly. Ask the average person to name a favorite Weight Watchers spokesperson—Jessica Simpson, Kirstie Alley, or Marie Osmond—and Johnson doubts any of them would know that Alley sold Jenny Craig, while Osmond repped NutriSystem. “It just creates more confusion in the category,” says Johnson.

Even Weight Watchers spokesman Charles Barkley has expressed doubts about being a spokesperson. Earlier this year, the “round mound of rebound” got caught disparaging his endorsement deal on air during a Hawks-Heat basketball game when he thought the microphone was off. “I thought this was the greatest scam going—getting paid for watching sports—this Weight Watchers thing is a bigger scam,” he said. Still, Barkley, who ballooned to 350 pounds and reportedly has a target weight of 270 pounds, remains a spokesperson and had lost 50 pounds by April. And so far, no one has confused him with Marie Osmond.

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