AP file
Phil Hawkins, left, works with personal trainer Rob Whittaker in this photo taken as an advertisement for the ACAC Fitness and Wellness Centers. Consumer-friendly health club ads to attract the New Year's resolution crowd are revealing less definition in the models' bodies and more definition in target marketing.
updated 1/5/2004 4:49:03 PM ET 2004-01-05T21:49:03

Americans are gaining weight, and health clubs don’t want to be left out. People in their ads are gaining weight, too.

Clubs are afraid that unless they show less shapely people, the unfit and flabby majority of Americans won’t feel at home.

Ads to attract the New Year’s resolution crowd — January is to health club memberships what December is to department store sales — are revealing less definition in the models’ bodies and more definition in target marketing.

Non-exercisers have gotten the idea that “you have to get fit to join a health club,” said Martin Pazzani, chief marketing officer at Bally Total Fitness, the nation’s largest health club chain. “The fitness industry has focused on images of youth.”

Clubs have done a good job of preaching to the converted. Partly because club executives were fit, ads “reflected themselves and their current members,” Pazzani said.

Reaching out to a broader market
But this approach leaves clubs hitting a plateau that could leave out most of the potential market. Of about 200 million American adults, only about 30 million are five-times-a-week exercisers, and about two-thirds of them already are health club members, said Phil Wendel, owner of Atlantic Health Clubs, a small chain headquartered in Charlottesville, Va.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says only 31 percent of adults engage in regular leisure-time physical activity. And the industry polling firm American Sports Data reports that 63 percent know exercise is good for their health but do not exercise because they don’t think they’re capable of it.

Meanwhile, getting fat is making striking gains. Obesity, the CDC says, has increased from 19 percent of adults in 1997 to 24 percent in 2002.

“The greatest concern many people have who are not regular exercisers at all is they are too intimidated to get started,” said Rick Caro, president of Management Vision Inc., a New York-based industry consulting group. “They don’t understand there may be many people who look like them or, excuse the expression, worse.”

“You hear a lot of people say, ’I want to get in shape before I join the health club, so I look OK,”’ Wendel said.

Clubs have room for all kinds of bodies, however, and some decidedly unfit people show up to work on self-improvement, especially in January, just not enough of them. So the clubs are doing more outreach.

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More welcoming ads
“The advertising has not been as welcoming as the clubs themselves,” Pazzani said.

At the approximately 400 clubs in the Bally chain, the new message will be more inclusive. “We are focusing on all Americans who want to be more fit, and that includes the obese,” he said.

This isn’t to say future ads will go so far as showing grossly obese people with glistening sweat. There will be traditional young hardbodies, but there also will be more people who are not fit and not young. Some ads won’t show people at all, Pazzani said, so anyone could envision themselves in the workout.

The trend toward more consumer-friendly ads has been developing in the industry as a whole, but too slowly, Wendel said. His ads feature the non-hardbodied, and a result is an increase in seniors and the deconditioned, he said.

The new members also must feel welcome after they arrive, so his clubs have homey-looking hardwood floors, plants and sitting areas. “If someone is making the first step, they are not going to hear clanking weights,” Wendel said.

They also will have more hands-on, he said, with more employees who are trained in helping newbies learn how to handle the non-clanking weights.

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