Government Is Like Weight Watchers

The business success of Weight Watchers  lies in the fact that it doesn’t work—thus getting perpetually repeating customers.

NY Magazine posted a piece by Traci Mann entitled, “Oprah’s Investment in Weight Watchers Was Smart Because the Program Doesn’t Work.”

She writes in part:

Winfrey’s venture is, in fact, a brilliant investment, although not necessarily for the reason she thinks. It’s brilliant not because Weight Watchers works but because it doesn’t. It’s the perfect business model. People give Weight Watchers the credit when they lose weight. Then they regain the weight and blame themselves. This sets them up to join Weight Watchers all over again, and they do.

The company brags about this to its shareholders. According to Weight Watchers’ business plan from 2001 (which I viewed in hard-copy form at a library), its members have “demonstrated a consistent pattern of repeat enrollment over a number of years,” signing up for an average of four separate program cycles. And in an interview for the documentary The Men Who Made Us Thin, former CFO Richard Samber explained that the reason the business was successful was because the majority of customers regained the weight they lost, or as he put it: “That’s where your business comes from.”

But what about studies that show that Weight Watchers is effective? It is, in the short term.

So, in reality, despite the short-term effectiveness of certain diet regimes, the most common outcome of dieting itself, by a landslide, is either weight regain or trivial weight loss — which leads to a lot of repeat business for companies like Weight Watchers. But no diet, not even Weight Watchers, can claim that more than a small minority of its customers successfully keep the weight off in the long term. To be fair, Weight Watchers doesn’t explicitly promise long-term weight loss, but it neglects to mention that it’s extremely unlikely and instead makes vague claims on its website, such as, “Our proven program works.” Works for what? It would be easy for potential customers to misconstrue the website’s statement that they’ve “helped millions of people change their relationship with food for good.”

I can’t help but think about Obamacare and many other government schemes to help the poor or save the economy, inevitably these programs may make some people better off at first, when the spending is high and taxes haven’t risen to pay for it. But inevitably the people end up with a lower standard of living than before. So then it is time for a new candidate to promise a new program that will excite voters who feel the need for government salvation all over again.

That’s how we go from Barack Obama to Bernie Sanders.