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What Makes Chuck Skinny
By Ian Ayres   View more articles by this author
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January 10

Weight Watchers has ads in heavy rotation with Charles Barkley saying "lose weight like a man."  You can also hear him mention his success in his Saturday Night Live monologue. Something is working. Since starting WW, he’s lost 38 pounds.

But what about the Weight Watchers program that has him shedding so much weight?

Is it the group weigh-ins?

Is it the famous Weight Watchers point system?

Or is it something else?

A YouTube video of an overheard conversation with Barkley and his co-commentators at a recent Miami Heat/Atlanta Hawks basketball game suggests some answers. Barkley said: “I’ve been on weight watchers three months. I have to lose two pounds a week. I’m at 38 pounds now. They come and weigh me every two weeks. I ain’t never missed a weigh-in. Never going to. I’m feeling much better. But I ain’t giving away no money… I’m not giving away no free money. I thought this was the greatest scam going— getting paid for watching sports — this Weight Watchers thing is a bigger scam.”

The video caused a minor stir because Barkley called Weight Watchers a scam, but in context his comments just seems like “a provocative way of saying that he likes his job so much it doesn't feel like work.” But Barkley’s description provides some insight about what’s really motivating his weight loss.

From the transcript, I’m guessing that the group weigh-in is not a large motivating factor. This doesn’t mean Barkley isn’t using Weight Watchers – since tons of people use WW online and forego the social support of weekly meetings. Barkley emphasizes that they go to him.

He doesn’t mention the point system as a cause of his success. But I was impressed in this conversation with Weight Watcher’s CEO, about how knowledgeable Barkley is with the point system and the need to change his pattern of eating. I’m convinced that Barkley is using the point system. (But in the conversation, he also discloses that he lost a bunch of weight before starting Weight Watchers. His weight peaked at 350 but he started WW at 336 and at the time of the interview, he was down to 299.).

What’s troubling to me about the “scam” transcript is that it suggests that Barkley might be losing weight because of the fear of losing money. When he says, “I have to lose two pounds a week. .. .They come and weigh me every two weeks….I ain’t giving away no money… I’m not giving away no free money .. .” it has the whiff of a Commitment Contract – even with a third-party referee. I don’t know the details of his endorsement deal. But there is a chance Barkley’s pay turns on his weight at each weigh in.

In some ways this is unsurprising. Subway would stop using Jared (Fogle) as a spokesperson if he regained too much weight. Jenny Craig was not happy with Kirstie Alley when she regained most of the weight she had lost on their program. So it’s to be expected that Barkley’s spokesperson income would be tied in some way to his weight.

But if the Barkley financial incentives in his endorsement contract are too explicit or too extreme (like Curt Schilling’s $2 million weight loss incentive), then it’s a little misleading for Weight Watchers to be running an ad campaign attributing his success to their product.

I’ve criticized the factual claims behind Weight Watcher’s (“because it works”) ads before and I want to be clear that I don’t think the Barkley ads rise to the level of deceptive advertising under the Lanham act. But consumers might feel ill-used if they learned that the Weight Watchers deal contractually obligated Barkley to eat NutriSystem meals. So too, they might be upset if (and it’s a big if) they learned he was losing weight at least in part because he would have to “give away free money” if he did not lose 2 pounds a week.

Such a diet sounds a lot more like my favorite diet program, The $500 DIET: Weight Loss for People Who Are Committed to Change -- only in Barkley’s case he might have a lot more than $500 at stake.

(If you want to avoid paying $2.99 to read it through Kindle, You can read a free excerpt or even listen an audio-recording of me reading the entire booklet for free on iTunes).

From Weight Watchers: “We love Charles for the same reason everyone loves Charles, he’s unfiltered. We are thrilled that he is having great success and inspiring millions of men to join him. We agree that being a spokesman for Weight Watchers is a pretty great gig.”

And from Charles Barkley: “I meant what I said, the fact that I’m dropping pounds, getting healthier and getting paid at the same time, is my definition of a great scam. The only problem is I’m going to have to use some of the money to buy a new wardrobe.”


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