Policy/Biz

Diet Companies Swap Celebrities For Real People: Why High-Profile Ads Aren't As Effective

Clone of dietprogram
Diet companies have begun swapping their celebrity endorsers for ordinary, relatable people in the hopes that they'll resonate more with consumers. Flickr, LauraLewis23

For years, diet companies stuck to a standard model of marketing their programs, which was to tack on a celebrity endorser and let the results speak for themselves. Marie Osmond pushed Nutrisystem, Jessica Simpson praised Weight Watchers, and until recently, Valerie Bertinelli was the face of Jenny Craig. However, a new push for “real” testimonials has many companies swapping high-profile celebrities for relatable, low-budget alternatives.

The most recent celebrity swap came from Jenny Craig, who once featured actress Valerie Bertinelli but has since pushed her to the back burner, focusing instead on animated spots that highlight the range of food options. Advertising analysts argue that these moves align with consumers’ natural preference for a relatable endorser, as opposed to a wealthy celebrity whose diet program likely includes personal trainers, personal chefs, and countless other coveted resources.

Consider Jared Fogle, Subway’s chief spokesperson who lost 245 lbs. Nobody knew Fogle until the unknown from Indianapolis professed his success with turkey and veggie subs. No one knew him, so people automatically assumed that he was average.

“We see in our data that, on average, ads that have a celebrity in them do less well than ads that don’t,” Peter Daboll, CEO of Ace Metrix, an advertising analytics company, told Today. “The basic problem with celebrity ads is that they don’t appeal to everyone. You think about finding a celebrity, and it’s really difficult to find one that everybody likes.”

In 2011, a weight loss company called Medifast began an ad campaign specifically avoiding celebrity endorsers. The company selected four nonactors to participate in a nine-month diet program leading up to filmed testimonials about their weight loss journey. They received pre-portioned meals and unlimited online support from dietitians and nutritionists, just as Medifast customers would receive.

The three people who lost the most weight returned to Studio City, Calif., to film the commercials, which used clever editing to create the illusion that participants were having a conversation with their former, heavier self. It was all unscripted.

“They put the computer in front of me, and I said, ‘I can’t believe you’re going to do that,’” Kimberly Vandlen, one of the participants, told the New York Times, recalling seeing the footage of her “before” self.

“I broke down in tears,” she said, “because I remember ‘that’ girl, and I remember how badly she was feeling and not wanting to get up from the couch or play with my daughter because my knees would ache or ankles would ache.”

Such raw emotion finds little salience among celebrity endorsers, whose on-camera struggles seem belied by off-camera advantages. People whose faces we don’t recognize relate more to us fundamentally, as if they were more real — akin to our neighbor down the street or a stranger we passed in public.

“We just feel like people don’t connect as much with celebrities,” said Brian Kagen, chief marketing officer of Medifast, to the New York Times. “Because they know that perhaps the celebrities also may have had a personal trainer or a personal chef, which normal people don’t have.”

In the United States alone, the weight loss industry is now worth $61 billion. At any given moment, roughly 108 million people follow some form of a diet program, and given the trend in “real” success stories, those dieters likely set goals less like Jessica Simpson, and more like Jared Fogle.

“I think they’re brilliant because they feel authentic,” said Jay Jacobs of the Medifast commercials. Jacobs competed on the 11th season of the weight loss show The Biggest Loser, dropping a total of 181 lbs. “They didn’t feel staged, they didn’t feel trite — they were all very believable, and that’s what’s going to make them resonate with people.”

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