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The Biggest Loser: Don’t Blame the Messenger

By Beth Nichols – Feb 15, 2014 at 9:42AM

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The Biggest Loser winner showed how The Biggest Loser contest misaligned with The Biggest Loser brand and delivered a lesson in the dangers of letting branding "sleeping dogs" lie.

When Rachel Frederickson took the stage for The Biggest Loser finale, she unveiled a rail-thin, 105-pound frame that took my breath away. Her weight loss, product of months of work, won her the program's quarter-million dollar prize. The trainers clapped and smiled, but barely covered their surprise – or was that shock – at seeing how far the contestant had carried her efforts. Indeed, a photo that seemed to capture distress on the faces of trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels went viral by morning. All in all, viewers of Comcast (CMCSA -2.29%) subsidiary NBC were left feeling a little confused.

The media was abuzz, describing Rachel's result with headlines that included, "Too Thin," "Stunning," and "Uncomfortable." The press claimed Rachel was too slender "even by Hollywood standards" and questioned whether the show had gone "too far." And yet, despite my sincere hope that Rachel was healthy despite the hullaballoo, I couldn't help but think – wait – she was, after all, "in it to win it." We asked her to lose as many pounds as she could, and this is exactly what this determined competitor did.

The Biggest Loser brand

Over the past 10 years, The Biggest Loser has built a formidable healthy-lifestyle brand. When rolling out the program's Season 15 sponsors, Monica Austin, SVP of business and brand development for program producer Shine America, described The Biggest Loser's mission as an "on-going effort to fight obesity, providing our brand partners with a creative multi-platform experience to authentically communicate their messages."

Season 15's sponsors included Jennie-O by Hormel (HRL -1.24%), Planet Fitness, Brita Water Filters, Ford (F -0.22%), Subway, and General Mills (GIS -0.75%). Said Austin, these "partners have played an integral role in making 'The Biggest Loser' a respected brand that both educates and inspires our viewers to get active and live healthier lives."

Given all this, it's not hard to imagine the collective "uh-oh" that went on behind the scenes when the program's big reveal played as "Too skinny!" rather than "How healthy!"

A branding disconnect

I believe The Biggest Loser has been sitting on an indefensible crack in its branding armor that just showed itself in a big way live on prime time TV. The contest is not about who can come closest to his or her ideal body weight without going under – it's about who can lose the most weight. This potentially dangerous branding disconnect has been there all along; it just took a fierce competitor in the form of Rachel Frederickson to show it to the viewing audience.

Throughout the seasons, contestants have posted one-week losses that could easily be regarded as alarming, and yet, perhaps because they were within the protective cocoon of the ranch by individuals still well above an ideal weight, we cheered their success. Somehow watching contestants work so hard they would vomit, cry, and fall down made for compelling television, perhaps because the show followed them as they moved beyond that struggle to appear fit and healthy. Prior to what has turned out to be the "stress test" of Season 15, The Biggest Loser looked to have perfected its brand recipe.

Loser by the numbers

Rachel would have needed to finish the contest with a BMI of 18.5 in order to have been classified as healthy by the CDC with her 5'4" frame (at least 108 pounds); instead, she finished with a BMI of 18 (105 pounds). Just 3 more pounds, and charges of being below a healthy BMI would not have applied. With a quarter-million dollar prize on the table, it is easy to understand why she would push to get her weight as low as possible for the finale.

This is especially true given that Rachel's two competitors for the prize were men. Runner-up David Brown stood 6'2" and began the competition at 409 pounds. By CDC standards, he could have shrunk all the way to 144 pounds before being declared underweight. This feat would have resulted in a loss of 64.79%, and would have beat Rachel's 59.62% accomplishment by a huge margin. In order to assure her success, it may be that Rachel needed to risk pushing the healthy envelope.

Changes in the works?

As of this writing, rumors are swirling about "tweaks" to The Biggest Loser format for upcoming seasons. Viewers, sponsors, and trainers love the "get healthy" message, we want to see people succeed. But I think Rachel has delivered a reminder to the program producers that getting healthy and losing as much weight as humanly possible as fast as possible are not always one and the same. Some brand messaging repair is no doubt in order for The Biggest Loser.

Beth Nichols owns shares of Ford. The Motley Fool recommends Ford. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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