Diet Another Day

A backlash to all the weight-loss obsession has begun to creep into a wide, wry variety of commercials


July 11, 2004|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Arnie Greenspun was trying to bring some attention to his Towson bagel shop, so he posted a sign that offered, "Carbs galore. Extra carbs at no additional cost."

Boy, did it catch people's eye.

"Some people were just sticking their head in and saying 'I love your sign,' " said the owner of Arnie's Bagel Cafe on York Road. "It was a real conversation piece."

While the popularity of diets such as Atkins and South Beach created practically overnight a multibillion-dollar industry in low-carb products and marketing, a backlash to all the weight-loss obsession has begun to creep into some advertising messages.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Sunday's business section misidentified the manufacturer of the Tundra pickup. It is Toyota.
The Sun regrets the error.

The ads, often humorous, appear to try to tap an underlying sentiment that many people aren't all that crazy about dieting even if they feel compelled to be doing it. Advertising executives also say it's one of advertising's tried-and-true techniques: Winning over consumers by poking fun at the latest fad.

"It's one of the oldest tricks in the book, really," said Chuck Donofrio, with Carton Donofrio advertising firm in Baltimore. "Nobody is looking for an ad to watch so you have to work to get people's attention. One of the easiest ways is to take an existing paradigm or idea and do the opposite."

In a Pinnacle Foods Corp. commercial for Hungry-Man frozen dinners, a hefty man gets blown away by the mere gust from a hair dryer after telling locker-room buddies that he ate only a watercress tea sandwich with a sprig of parsley for dinner.

In another series of TV commercials and newspaper ads, Anheuser-Busch pitches its Bud Light beer around the theme, "All light beers are low in carbs ... choose on taste." Some ads show men and women working out their fingers on tiny treadmills to make fun of how little energy it takes to work off 6.6 grams of carbohydrates in a 12-ounce Bud Light.

All are light

The commercials began airing last spring to counter claims from competitor Miller Brewing Co. that its Miller Lite has half the carbs of Bud Light.

"One thing we're doing is stating the facts that all light beers are light on carbs," said Dan McHugh, senior director, Bud Light Marketing, Anheuser-Busch Inc. "The beauty of that advertising is not only does it get the message across that Bud Light is low in carbs, but it's also light-hearted in making fun of the low-carb phenomena."

Although less direct, the anti-weight-loss message has crept into commercials for products as diverse as Ford Tundra pickups and Kentucky Fried Chicken. A Ford commercial describes a truck big enough for some huge guy and his fishing buddies, while a recent KFC commercial with race-car driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. extols fried chicken over "salad bars."

Going against the grain of a popular idea is one of the most tried and true ways companies have used to bring attention to their products, marketing experts said.

In the mid-1980s, a Rochester, N.Y., soda bottler created Jolt Cola with "twice the caffeine," it boasted, to appeal to consumers fed up with the move toward sugar-free and caffeine-free beverages. The company spent $1 million in introductory advertising that lampooned other companies' "parade of wimpy-tasting colas."

Pushing back

Two years ago, Royal Farms, the Baltimore-based convenience store chain, ran billboards with overstuffed subs and the slogan: "Nobody's losing weight off of our subs." The ads were a tongue-in-cheek counter to the success campaign run by competitor Subway about Jared Fogle, who lost 245 pounds while eating only Subway's sandwiches.

As the low-carb phenomenon has reached an apex, marketers said it's only natural to see some push back.

"First, we saw everybody come out with their own low-carb version of everything," said Lewis Small, an assistant marketing professor at York College in Pennsylvania. "Naturally, you'd expect a backlash, and that's what we're starting to see."

Greenspun of Arnie's Bagels dreamed up his counter to carb-counting simply to bring notice to his restaurant during a street renovation project that obscured his storefront. He was surprised when customers actually began coming in to order the extra carbs: He gives those who ask an extra bagel.

It worked well at the York Road restaurant, along a heavily trafficked commercial strip, where customers aren't really into low carbs, Greenspun said. He probably wouldn't use the tactic at his Federal Hill shop, Sam's Bagels, where a low-carb bagel sells well to the young urban professionals who reside in one of Baltimore's trendier neighborhoods.

Grand Marnier for the past few months has been running ads that say: "Isn't there more to talk about than how many carbs you ate today?"

The distiller came up with the idea after some of its most loyal drinkers began complaining about the overabundance of low-carb foods during Internet chat talks the company regularly sponsors.

"It's such a preoccupation that people are now actually revolting against it," said Steve Luttmann, director of Grand Marnier in New York.

Grand Marnier ran similar ads during the craze. One such ad read: "Enough e-talk. How about some we-talk? "

Marketing experts said such campaigns might attract people who could be doubting a new fad.

"They're appealing to what is an actual self-image, which is what people think about," Small said. "Your ideal self may want to fight carbs but these ads say realistically not everybody is going to do that and that's it's OK to be bad with us."

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