Commentary

Health And Fitness Ads Need A Makeover

Is it over, finally? Please say it is. You know what I'm talking about, right? All those January get fit/lose weight/go on a diet/we're-the-answer-to-all-your-physical-woes ads. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for exercising daily, maintaining a healthy weight and eating the right kinds of foods. I'm a certified personal trainer, in fact, in my spare time. No kidding.

But the way good health is generally marketed is a great disservice to a problem that just keeps getting worse. There are so many options and they all sound plausible but, in the end, the next year rolls around and most consumers have added a pound to their body fat.

Let's get this one out of the way at the beginning because it's so obvious. Nobody looks like that. Nobody who isn't young, genetically blessed, cosmetically enhanced and able to spend many, many hours in the gym every day, at any rate. So, please, start giving us real people in your ads and help those who are 50 or 75 pounds (or more) overweight feel good about walking through the doors of your facility. Don't give us an image most of us will never achieve.

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Kudos, in fact, to Planet Fitness for its "Judgment Free Zone" philosophy. Even if it doesn't stop wandering-eye syndrome entirely, it sets a tone. I have seen more people in its facilities that I've not seen elsewhere working out side-by-side with the superbuff. Planet Fitness' equipment works, the price is right, the locker rooms are Spartan but clean. All you need to do is to show up and put in the minutes.

And please stop with the "magic bullet" baloney. It taints everybody. One radio spot that really got my goat this weight-loss season was for a product called Right Sized Smoothie. Its magic ingredient is something called "appemine." One industrious reviewer, Joe Cannon, broke down appemine and found that it consists of some familiar ingredients, albeit mixed in a presumably proprietary way.

In the end, though, "there does not seem to be any published peer-reviewed evidence that the unique combination of ingredients in Appemine promotes weight loss in humans," he writes. We knew that, right? But it sure sounds good coming out the mouth of its pitchman. Hmmm, we say, it can't hurt. And there's a two-week free trial ...

Right Size, in fact, positions itself against all the inflated claims out there -- "RightSize Health & Nutrition, Inc. was formed in 2002 when diet scams were at an all-time high" -- even while adding to the noise. Reviewer Cannon goes out of his way to say that he has nothing against the product or the free market in general, and that if you reduce the amount of calories you take in by drinking it exclusively, you will, indeed, lose weight. I concur. But that's true of any product, as he also points out. Eat less, move more, lose pounds.

The problem is that a diet consisting entirely of this smoothie concoction is not sustainable. Eating healthy foods and portion control is. The most powerful exercise in your arsenal, as one trainer told me, is "the pushaway."

ABC's "20/20" did a report on assorted diet pill advertising last year -- products with names such as Xenadrine, Alka Slim, Ultimate HGH (which will also "remove wrinkles, improve skin elasticity, increase memory retention ... and improve vision") and Supreme Greens. It concluded with the only advice that makes solid sense: "Never underestimate how low some marketers will go to sell you that magic pill. Just remember, the only real magic is diet, exercise and a healthy dose of skepticism."

I'm going to interrupt this commentary the same way I was interrupted last night while doing some research on it. In both instances, friends had had their social network apps hijacked.

In the first, I found myself responding to an IM "hey" poke on Yahoo Messenger from someone I had not talked to in years. It didn't take long before "she" was goading me to take an IQ test online to see if I could "do better than me." I conceded she could and went silent. But I was still not sure if it was just a dopey acquaintance or some sort of bot I was talking to. Turns out it was the latter.

Then I saw a message float by on TweetDeck from one Facebook friend to another: "Heyy Sarah for the past few weeks I have been trying this new weight loss product I saw on Oprah and CNN. You should check this out too I have lost some weight already on it, and I hear many others have too."

Then it went to Geoffrey. Then it came to me. Ach. The dreaded Acai Berry scam, including a page that makes it look like a real television reporter has investigated the inflated claims and given the product a hearty thumbs up. And no wonder: "I couldn't be any happier with the results," she purportedly says. "I Lost 25 lbs in 4 Weeks, No Special Diet, No Intense Exercise."

Marketers had best get a grip on this stuff fast. And I'm not just talking about the high-tech hijacking of people's identities to push snake oil, which is particularly insidious. I'm also talking about self-policing the message that legitimate enterprises send out. Otherwise, quicker than you can drop and give me 20 -- okay let's start with three and there's nothing wrong with that -- you'll be facing a very real movement calling for regulation of ads that "have a negative impact on self-image -- such as slimming products, surgical procedures and beauty treatments."

It has already happened in Spain; and the way things are literally expanding in the U.S., anecdotal sentiment is growing that it could also happen here. There's a difference between being fit and looking like a movie star. Now that's an image to promote.

2 comments about "Health And Fitness Ads Need A Makeover ".
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  1. Deirdre Drohan Forbes from Catlife Photography, January 29, 2011 at 2:58 p.m.

    so whatever happened to regular foam mattresses? Not the green latex type but the kind made from good old foam you find in sofas and chairs? One thing left out of this discussion was the height of mattresses. The 25-year-old mattress I have now was only 5" high and pretty normal for the time. Now a 10" mattress is probably considered average as I've seen them go to heights of 15" as well. That's got to add to the cost! What do young people in new apartments do now-a-days for an inexpensive bed. We used to buy platform beds with foam mattresses and for a couple of hundred bucks (200 tops) you were set.

  2. Jen O'leary from SPARK, January 31, 2011 at 11:07 a.m.

    Great article Thom. As the agency for Lifestyle Family Fitness, we identified the same issue with most gym advertising - the hard bodies and models are unrealistic and not relatable to the everyday person. We wanted to show real people who face daily decisions and temptations and talk them about getting fit in the right way - no magic bullets here.

    We developed a campaign aiming to tap into that voice everyone has - the one that urges you to do the right thing. We deemed this voice “Your Fit” and portrayed it in our traditional media, digital efforts and in-store messaging.

    “Your Fit Is Calling” has been embraced wholeheartedly by the members and the community and has become an integral part of our marketing communications.

    See one of the commercials here:
    http://www.youtube.com/user/YourFitCalled#p/a/u/2/wa_PGihTqf4

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