Sex sells, and fitness clubs have been using it in their advertising for years - with marketing campaigns that predominantly feature young, hard bodies. But does anyone really buy that image anymore?

A day in the life of a couch potato: Click on channel 10. See a McDonald’s commercial—cheesy hamburger and golden, crunchy fries. Mmm. Fries. Click on over to channel 29. There’s Little Debbie’s fudgy brownie on the screen. Starting to drool.

Click.

Now a shot of a wasp-waisted woman, glistening with sweat, on a treadmill. Nice abs. Momentary guilt pang. The couch potato briefly envisions herself on the treadmill, then concludes that no matter how many miles she logs on the machine, she’ll never look like the woman.

Click.

The opening credits for “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” appear. The couch potato leaves her E-Z Boy momentarily to rummage through her pantry, pulling out a box of Oreos—the fitness commercial already forgotten.

Despite fitness marketing and a wealth of research proving the benefits of regular exercise, the typical American still eats too much and moves to little. Naturally, health clubs would like to change that, so they invest in marketing to draw members. But if only 10 percent of the U.S. population belongs to health clubs, then is this marketing working?

Consider that gym marketing is often replete with beautiful, thin women and handsome, muscular men. The logic is that consumers will want to look like the fitness models featured in the advertising, and they’ll join clubs to become an Adonis (or an Aphrodite, as the case may be).

Sounds reasonable—in theory. But the reality is this: While everyone can admire the nice abs shown in club ads, the perfect six-pack (as in midsection, not beer) can intimidate the average viewer. Bombarded with images of flawless human specimens, consumers may conclude that everyone in a health club looks perfect. As a result, they fear that they’ll stand out if they join a club—that they’ll be alone.

The thing is, they wouldn’t be alone in a health club. Today’s fitness facilities offer something for everyone. But the hard-body ads don’t make that point, some industry experts say.

“The industry has made huge advances in technology, operations, financial management, and human resource practices,” states Helen Langley Naples, the president of North Carolina’s Women’s Wellness & Fitness Center Inc. “When is advertising going to catch up?

“Today, we see the same images in club ads that were used in the 1970s. I don’t know if antiquated marketing techniques are keeping the industry down, but they are certainly not helping it to move forward.”

On the other hand, some club operators believe that close-ups of young, sweaty bodies make for effective advertising techniques. For them, this type of marketing worked in the past, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

“Sex sells,” states Sandy Coffman, owner of Programming for Profit, a Bradenton, Fla.-based consulting company. “And there’s enough evidence to substantiate that claim.”

Young at Heart
Having a beautiful model in an ad doesn’t make the ad in itself exploitative, says John McCarthy, the executive director for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA): “There’s nothing wrong with [showing] a handsome young man or beautiful young woman exercising. People tend to envision themselves as somebody younger than they actually are. So people…in their late 30s, from a visual point of view, can relate very well to people that look and feel to be in their late 20s.”

Jim Gerber, president of Western Athletic Clubs, disagrees with this viewpoint. “Our average [member] age is late 30s, early 40s,” he explains. “So if we did do that kind of [young] advertising, it would be terrible. It would be in the best interest of the industry to tone down the ads a little.”

McCarthy counters that the industry can benefit from a “younger” image. “Older people like to be around younger people,” he says. “So one of the worst mistakes a club can make is to get across the image that this is an old folks’ home.”

The Problem With Perfection
That being said, many a club ad moves well beyond an image of youthful vitality to an alienating image of perfection, according to Naples.

“What is ‘wrong’ with the image portrayed in much club advertising is not the message that ‘fitness is a good thing,’ but rather the message that ‘fitness only looks like this,’” she says. “For many, the image is unattainable. For some, that means quitting before they even start.”

This keeps people out of clubs—despite the fact that they know fitness is beneficial. “[E]ven with the mountains of research in support of the health benefits of exercise, still less than 20 percent of the U.S. population is exercising regularly,” continues Naples. “I think the real question is, ‘Who are we missing?’ When you ask if traditional advertising is doing any harm, I believe you must also take a close look at who is not joining.”

So who are we missing? According to Gayle Winegar, founder/president of the SweatShop, a predominantly female club in Minnesota, the deconditioned market is not being targeted effectively. In particular, clubs aren’t effectively reaching overweight middle-aged women. Another overlooked group, she claims, is the elderly.

In addition to looking at who isn’t joining, clubs also need to look at why they are not joining. It could be because the advertising doesn’t truly reflect clubs. “People have a preconceived notion of what the health club atmosphere is,” says Gerber. He adds that most people don’t join clubs because they’re intimidated, referring to an IHRSA study on the subject.

Going to the source of the study, Club Industry asked McCarthy for his views on the intimidation argument. While McCarthy believes there is nothing inherently wrong with using a youthful hard body in an ad campaign, he does note that the industry needs to reach more people.

“Millions of people are still uncomfortable walking into a health club because they think a health club is for the super fit,” he says. For that reason, McCarthy suggests that clubs reconsider some of the images used in their marketing. “Media advertising has to be a little softer,” he says. “Softer in body type. You want the physique to not be so impossibly fabulous. You want it to be pretty much a normal or average physique.”

The Hard Way

This is not to say, however, that the industry as a whole should ban all hard bodies from the ads. A club must base its advertising on its market.

“Clubs don’t want to marginalize themselves,” McCarthy says. For example, if you know weightlifters are your primary client, then by all means use an Arnold Schwarzenegger body-type in your advertising. But if you know your potential client base is diverse, then you better make sure your advertising reflects your customers.

Clubs that expect to serve a broad membership should consider advertising that shows a variety of body types, ages and races. That way everyone feels included.

“You want to portray your image with pictures that say, ‘We aren’t intimidating. We have a lot of different kinds of people at our clubs,’” Gerber offers. For example, the Western Athletic Clubs includes pictures of families in its marketing and highlights the social aspects of joining a club.

Non-threatening pictures can really help the club connect to people. “People look at a picture…and they try to put themselves in that picture,” Coffman says. “That picture in the advertisement should make the customer almost feel they are an immediate member of that club.”

All About the Image
In other words, the goal is to make potential customers comfortable by making them relate to the images depicted in the ads. True, hard bodies may inspire some new exercisers, but they won’t motivate prospects with realistic expectations.

“I think we almost tend to insult our potential customer by telling them that if they join the club, they are going to look as beautiful as that [model],” Coffman says.

One could argue that club advertising which features perfect specimens will attract the best members—that is, fit people who recognize the benefits of regular exercise. Maybe, but then again, physically fit people don’t need an ad to get them into a club. “Hard bodies are going to show up in the gym regardless…,” says Winegar.

Winegar believes that a club’s ad should reflect the people who really use a club—or the people the club would like to attract. “If your market is baby boomers, why do you show people of [age] 22?” she asks rhetorically. “Or if your market is the overweight market, why do you show a person who’s a size 4 in a thong? They’re neither who we are nor who we’re going to be.

“The unimaginative ad campaigns use bodies,” she continues. “The imaginative way is to talk about health, wellness, longevity.” In order not to alienate anyone, Northeast club chain Town Sports International (TSI) use images and slogans that incorporate humor and current events. For instance, in an ad campaign that ran this past January, TSI used the copy, “Attention Dot Commers. Look Good When You Lose Your Shirt.”

“We’ve used hard-body images [in the past],” explains Bob Giardina, TSI’s president/COO. “We used older population images. These haven’t been successful. They don’t stick with people.” The humorous ads have. That being said, Giardina doesn’t believe that marketing alone will convince people to sign a contract. “Advertising doesn’t get people to join a club,” he explains, “[but] it makes them think of you when something in their life changes.”

In other words, if a person is still in couch-potato mode, nothing will get her off that E-Z Chair except her own motivation. When that motivation comes (for example, her doctor tells her she needs to get in shape), maybe she’ll think back to a club’s ad. And when she thinks back, the hope is that she’ll remember the club positively. To leave a positive impression, clubs must market themselves as welcoming facilities. That’s why Naples, frustrated with the lack of diverse advertising images, tried a novel approach in her club’s marketing campaign.

“Our best option was to have professional photographs taken of our actual members,” she says. “These ads have proven quite popular, and we have also displayed them within the club.

“Some industry ‘experts’ argue that the public wants to see images ‘to which they can aspire,’” she continues. “In other words, nobody wants to look at images of real-looking people. That has not been our experience.”


Fire Your Advertising Director

Just kidding. But you can seriously cut back her work load with some innovative alternatives to advertising.

With the right hype, an event or program can generate free publicity for years to come. Case in point: Gayle Winegar’s SweatShop. A small female-friendly club located in St. Paul, Minn., the SweatShop has managed to coast on name recognition for the past four years. For example, Minnesota’s Women’s Press named Winegar Newsmaker of the Year in 1997. Additionally, in 1999, the nationally acclaimed Mode Magazine dubbed the SweatShop one of only a handful of “body (and brain) friendly gyms.”

So why all the recognition? It began four years ago, when Winegar decided to fight back against the media’s portrayal of people’s bodies. (Bally Total Fitness’s advertising images, according to Winegar, are almost “soft porn.”) She led her staff and club members in a Body Image Rally in which the group shredded and recycled images of emaciated models from high-fashion magazines.

Then, not content to sit back on her laurels, Winegar organized the nationally recognized Take Back the Beach campaign in 1998. This campaign poked fun at the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue by debuting the REAL Swimsuit Calendar. Winegar’s models were all members or friends of the SweatShop, and represented every shape, size and age, demonstrating that everyone can show off their “average” body.

Following this successful campaign, Winegar had interviews with publications such as the Chicago Tribune and Forbes magazine. In addition, she appeared on an hour-long segment on the national cable channel, America’s Health Network.

“I was so naïve about anticipating the results [of the campaign],” says Winegar. “It identified us as having humor about the hard-body image. It’s now years later since the calendar, and people still show up because they identify us as having real workouts for real bodies.” Because of the success of these two publicity stunts, Winegar says the club has completely dropped all other advertising. “A consultant told us to drop our advertising just because we had such a strong PR image. It’s cut out $40,000 to $50,000 in marketing costs.”

Now, instead of trying to think of snappy headlines and eye-catching images, Winegar tries to use programming and community events as the club’s marketing tool.

Helen Langley Naples, president of the Women’s Wellness & Fitness Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., also likes to use local activities to publicize her club. “Some of our most effective ‘advertising’ has been in the form of community events,” she explains, “especially those which promote our philosophy of positive body image.

“For instance, last fall we sponsored a clothing exchange entitled, ‘Shed Your Hang-Ups.’ We invited the public to clean out their closets and bring in anything that did not make them feel glamorous,” Naples says. “Then the participants got to choose from other people’s clothing that was left. We donated the rest to the local battered women’s shelter.

“The message was: ‘Don’t wait to diet into your clothes. You deserve to look and feel your best today. Choose clothes that are attractive and comfortable on you!’

“We had a huge turnout, and the press coverage went a long way toward giving our philosophy plenty of exposure.”


The Name Game

The name of your club can have as much positive (or negative) impact as your advertising campaign. If it gives the public the wrong impression, people may draw bad conclusions about your club. Consider Minnesota’s SweatShop. This name conjures up an image of a bunch of bulky guys with armpit stains on their T-shirts. Yet, according to president/founder Gayle Winegar, Minnesota Women’s Press Newspaper recently named the club one of the most women-friendly health clubs. And no wonder: Seventy-five percent of their members are women (the other 25 percent consist of “enlightened guys,” as Winegar puts it), and the club is known for its women-conscious programming.

“The SweatShop doesn’t necessarily represent who we are as opposed to who we were 20 years ago,” admits Winegar. “But we have this ongoing debate about how much equity is built up in a name. But in general, new clubs should have a kind of neutral name.”

Neutral names might incorporate the club’s town or area—Bay Area Club, New York Fitness Club, San Francisco Health Center, etc. On the other hand, a neutral name may not be necessary for clubs with a specific member in mind. After all, notes Bob Giardina, president and COO of the northeastern chain Town Sports International (TSI), “at least with [a name like] Sweatshirt Gym, you know it’s a gym. If [a club owner] calls it Pizzazz, you may not even what it is. “If I were a single-club operator, I would stick with something very specific.”

“I think the name of the club has a lot to do with how the club’s perceived,” adds Jim Gerber, president of the California chain Western Athletic Clubs. That’s why he uses a different name for each of his 11 different facilities. This implies that each club is unique and draws attention away from the fact that they are a part of a chain.

Whatever you name your facility, make sure to use the word “club,” advises industry consultant Sandy Coffman, owner of the Florida-based Programming for Profit. Because the word “club” connotes social activities and a fun atmosphere, Coffman prefers it to “center,” “gym” and other common monikers.

Gerber agrees. His Western Athletic Club chain has utilized this strategy well: “I think that in the way we position our businesses, we always have the word club in them, so people realize there are social possibilities as well as fitness possibilities.”