Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Are weight loss programs really just money-making schemes?

As a communications professional, marketing/promotions that companies use to attract attention have always intrigued me, and as a Weight Watchers member and someone who has personally struggled with weight issues, I find this industry’s techniques especially interesting.  Recently, a New York Times article titled, “Weight Loss, With Divas and Public Service” discusses some of the tactics that the three major weight loss programs, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, and Nutrisystem are using to attract new members. 

All three programs are rolling out new campaigns that partner with celebrity endorsers.  They have also begun to rally around health/humanity issues such as hunger/chronic obesity.  As a communications/marketing professional, I see these promotions as smart ways to attract attention and publicity for the company, promote the company culture and values, and in the end, yes, make more money for the corporation by bringing in new members.  As an consumer, it raises questions about whether or not the celebrities endorsing the programs are actually participants themselves?  What exactly am I “buying” when I purchase a 17-week membership to Weight Watchers?

Jennifer Hudson, Weight Watchers spokesperson, looking INCREDIBLE at the 2011 Oscars [Photo via HelloBeautiful]
For me, I believe I pay money to be a part of Weight Watchers in order to learn a manageable way to organize and control my diet.  For the money I have spent, I have become a part of a community of people who have the same issues and struggles as I do, who can help me, and who can support me.  I pay money and get tips for cooking, new recipes, fitness, and advice on how to fit healthy eating into a chaotic, unpredictable lifestyle.  Sure, seeing Jennifer Hudson looking AMAZING definitely is one form of inspiration, but I didn’t join Weight Watchers and spend money thinking I would look like her.  I joined Weight Watchers to learn how to take control of my life and get healthy.  I feel I haven’t spent the last year of my life “on a diet” but that I have spent the last year, changing my life.  

Some people criticize these programs saying that they are money making schemes.  This is criticism I have heard just recently and took person offense to it.  And I do see how it can be a fine line.  Weight Watchers offers free "Lifetime" memberships to those who reach and maintain their goal weight.  If every person on the program reached goal weight, they would need a new business model.  I do see and understand that.

Because when it comes down to it, business is business and most things in life are a business.  Weight loss programs are not the only “healthy” companies that operate by making money… gyms, health centers, yoga studios, hospitals, etc. are all trying to make money as they improve the lives of their customers.  I recently read a book called 'Yoga Bitch' by Suzanne Morrison that touches upon the authors struggle with being a yoga teacher when she realized that by charging people to participate in yoga, you really can't be "zen."  Many businesses and industries are contradictory in this sense, yet they almost have to be in order to be profitable.  Money makes the world go round.

I personally am happy to see the new techniques and approaches that Weight Watchers, Jenny (which apparently has dropped the “Craig”), and Nutrisystem are using to attract new members.  I am particularly looking forward to seeing how Charles Barkley’s endorsement of Weight Watchers is taken by the male overweight population!  To end this blog, which now just feels like a big rambling of words... the NYT article quotes Ellen Granberg, a Clemson University sociology professor who studies long-term weight loss as saying,  “The companies are changing the way they are perceived, and how they influence the public.  They may be transitioning from being seen as diet companies to preventative health providers.”  And for that, I give two thumbs up and say way to go!

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