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Dame Edna cakes it off

Barry Humphries talks about himself and Dame Edna Everage becoming ambassadors for Jenny Craig.

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It's hard not to laugh at Jenny Craig's latest attempt to convince us to buy its products.

In the past week, as foreshadowed in the Sydney Morning Herald's PS column last month, the weight loss giant has launched an advertising campaign featuring Dame Edna.

But on this occasion it's not the comic genius of Barry Humphries that is so hilarious. The joke is on Jenny.

Dame Edna

The face of Jenny Craig's new advertising campaign ... Dame Edna.

After a succession of PR disasters with its female celebrity weight loss ambassadors, it seems the Jenny Craig company - owned by Nestle´, the same company that makes Kit Kats, Life Savers, and Drumstick ice creams - has taken a break from using women to promote its brand and has resorted to using a man pretending to be a woman.

Last August, the actress Magda Szubanski and Jenny Craig parted ways awkwardly. She no longer gets a mention in the Friends of Jenny section on its website.

Days later, MasterChef Julie Goodwin turned down a potentially lucrative offer. ''There are more important things going on in the world than losing a few kilograms … And besides, I'm happy with how I am,'' Goodwin said. Then, in December, the radio personality and magazine columnist Chrissie Swan declined to renew her contract with the company after having her second child.

Echoing Goodwin, she wrote in her Sunday Life column, ''I'm overweight and happy''. This is tantamount to heresy to the high priests of weight loss, in whose litany the equation ''fat = miserable'' is an article of faith.

Last month, Jenny Craig hit the headlines again when the company's CEO, Amy Smith, was invited to speak at the Alliance of Girls Schools annual conference, provoking super-sized servings of outrage.

Critics savaged the decision to invite the head of a company that thrives on fuelling body insecurity to a conference attended by educators of girls.

But perhaps we're being too cynical and too harsh on poor old Jenny. She's only trying to help, right? After all, look how well it turned out for US actor Kirstie Alley, who is now better known for yo-yo dieting than for her glory days in Cheers and Look Who's Talking.

The problem, of course, lies not with any of these weight loss ambassadors. It lies with the product. If there is one clear and unambiguous message from this list of celebrity ambassadorships gone awry, it's that Jenny Craig and products like it do not work in the long term.

It doesn't work if you're a celebrity. And it doesn't work if you're just an average Kath, Kim or Sharon.

Fifty years of scientific research tells us that only 5 per cent of people can maintain their weight loss from dieting. Yes, there are some success stories, but for every five people who succeed, 95 people fail.

With such damning rates it is extraordinary that we still blame individuals for ''failing'' at weight loss programs rather than accusing the diet companies of selling snake oil. Can you imagine buying any other product with a 95 per cent failure rate and then blaming yourself when it didn't deliver on its promise?

A 2008 Monash University study found participants blamed themselves for being unable to maintain their weight loss or ''stick'' to diets even though they also said that they were ''seduced'' by the consultants' ''spiel''. Some said the expense and the time they would need to be on the program to lose a substantial amount of weight was unrealistic.

More shocking is evidence that some diet companies know their product doesn't work. In her book Bodies, for example, the British psychotherapist Susie Orbach recounts a story in which a former manager of WeightWatchers in Britain said she was dismayed at how unsuccessful the company was in helping people to keep the weight off. Orbach notes that the failure of these products shouldn't surprise us. After all, if they were truly effective, it would be disastrous for the companies' bottom lines. ''Their profitability depends upon failure and their programs ensure that failure happens.''

It's very hard to find any independently verified data about success rates. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2010 found 92 per cent of women stayed with the Jenny Craig program and lost more weight than those without it, but the research was funded by the company, which also provided packaged foods and counselling free to study participants - hardly a real world test.

Given such ''evidence'', it's no surprise diet companies resort to a stream of celebrity ambassadors to sell the fantasy that their tailored eating and exercise plans are a path to permanent weight loss and happiness.

With such a poor industry record, and in the wake of a series of public relations disasters, it's perhaps fitting that the market leader is now putting its hopes in a brilliant comic actor who gets about in drag.

Good luck to you, possum. With Jenny Craig's success rate, you're going to need it.

Kasey Edwards is the author of Thirty-Something and the Clock is Ticking (Random House) and the forthcoming Kill the Fat Girl: A Girl's Own Manual to breaking free of bad body image and living a full life.

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