Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Chewing the Fat

When I was a little kid growing up in Maine, I loved reading the full-page advertisements in the Sunday Parade magazine for a diet supplement with the unfortunate brand name of AYDS. Each one was a testimonial -- a time-honored advertising format that's particularly effective when the product you're selling claims transformative properties -- from a formerly overweight man or woman who had lost 100 pounds or more simply by nibbling a chocolate-flavored appetite suppressant. It was wonderfully satisfying to read about people finally overcoming their life-long weight disability, allowing them at last to become the active, attractive person they'd always known was buried under all that blubber.

Of course, in the early '80s, the product underwent a name change due to the emergence of the AIDS pandemic, which could also be counted on for a swift, dramatic weight loss followed by an untimely demise.

Which brings me to the ongoing series of commercials for Jenny Craig. Granted, the weight-loss food system has had its spokesperson problems of late. For one thing, it probably wasn't the wisest choice to pick Kirstie Alley as the "face" of Jenny Craig given her butter addiction
So when she was replaced by the young actress Sara Rue, I wondered about the career implications of being a performer known primarily as a chunky comedic actor who suddenly drops 50 pounds. Yes, she looks great, and who wants to be fat? But when casting directors are saying "I need a funny, overweight girl for this part" they'll no longer be calling Ms. Rue, who now looks like a million pretty young women clamoring for parts in L.A.

Don't get me wrong, Rue is a likable young woman and at 31 she's already had an enviable career in show business that speaks to her obvious talents. I wish her the best. But when veteran actress Valerie Bertinelli was brought out of semi-retirement by Jenny Craig, the point was to use the product to restore her to the slim television personality we remembered from sitcoms and made-for-TV movies. She promptly lost 40 pounds and revived her career with a lead role on Hot In Cleveland, and that in itself is a great testament to the effectiveness of the product line. But Rue's lifelong weight problem was in a way her personal brand, and now it's completely altered. The challenge will be if her innate talent can bring her the success her quickly identifiable physique once did.

The same goes for the remarkably talented Jennifer Hudson. She's only been on the scene a few years, and we learned to associate her amazing singing voice with her heavy stature. Even her Academy Award-winning performance in Dream Girls was based on her ability to inhabit that character's size and the limitations it imposed. Now that she's slimmed down, she's less identifiable, and somehow more ordinary. That's the risk of adjusting any brand, be it personal or product, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out for both of these talented young performers.

Imagine if Jenny's new spokesman Jason Alexander continues to pare down. Does anyone really want to see a skinny George Costanza?

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