Dr. Phil, Medicine Man
Oprah Winfrey has talked about weight loss — hers and everyone else’s — for years. Her protégé Dr. Phil has found a way to make money from it.
Dr. Phillip C. McGraw, whose syndicated talk show, ”Dr. Phil,” is second only to Ms. Winfrey’s in popularity, began his second season last month with an ambitious multimedia assault on obesity. Following the example of Ms. Winfrey’s continuing series of programs, like her popular book club, he has invited 13 overweight participants to spend a year sweating off pounds and regaining self-confidence under his tough-love tutelage, with many more viewers charting their own progress on the Dr. Phil Web site, www.drphil.com. An accompanying book, ”The Ultimate Weight Solution: The 7 Keys to Weight Loss Freedom,” has been at the top of the best-seller lists, and he is promoting his system in a series on weight loss on NBC’s ”Today” program.
But another part of his campaign has taken him far from Ms. Winfrey’s playbook and led to some criticism. Under a licensing deal with CSA Nutraceuticals, a start-up in Irving, Tex., Dr. McGraw is lending his name and image to a line of nutritional supplements, including vitamin packets, power bars and meal-replacement drinks that began quietly appearing in stores like Wal-Mart, Walgreen and Target during the summer under the brand name Shape Up.
His licensing deal with CSA Nutraceuticals calls for a percentage of the products’ annual sales to be given to the Dr. Phil Foundation, a charity in Dallas that addresses epidemics like childhood obesity. While he would not disclose the specifics on that share, he expects the foundation to earn at least $1 million from the products in the first year. He added that he pays the foundation’s administration and staffing costs out of his own pocket.
But the deal also has some novel restrictions. Although the cover of his weight-loss book and the package design of the Shape Up products have a striking resemblance — both carry a full-length image of Dr. McGraw flashing a toothy grin and a red-and-white color scheme — neither product is explicitly used to promote the other. There is no mention of the products in the book, nor does he mention the Shape Up line on his program or his Web site. He will not appear in radio, print or television commercials to promote the products, and his contract prohibits CSA from buying commercial space for Shape Up products before, during or after the Dr. Phil Show.
Still, his strategy is at considerable odds with that of his friend and mentor, Ms. Winfrey. Throughout her 18-year career as a daytime talk-show host, with the enormous influence she wields in the marketplace, she has turned down numerous requests to license consumer products. The Oprah Book Club made unknown writers into very rich celebrity authors. Passing mentions of personal favorite products, like the Philosophy cosmetics line, turn them into household names. If you put her on ice skates, marketers speculate, she could probably sell a million hockey sticks.
But other than with products she controls herself, like O magazine, she has not licensed her name nor has she received a dollar from the book publishers she has made lost of money for. ”If I lost control of the business, ” she told Fortune magazine last year, ”I’d lose myself — or at least the ability to be myself.”
That is a risk that Dr. McGraw is apparently willing to take. Like Ms. Winfrey, he said that he has very ”stringent control” of his deal and that he was not surprised to hear criticism of the products.
”I guarantee you there is absolutely nothing — nothing I could do that somebody wouldn’t have a problem with,” he said. ”If I was on the air and was just kind of a plain-vanilla personality that took the safe road and the safe way trying to please all of the people all of the time, I’d been gone in two weeks.”
He said he had talked with Ms. Winfrey, whose company had a stake in the Dr. Phil show about his decision to back the Shape Up line, adding that their conversations were private and he would not disclose any details.
”I’ve learned a tremendous amount from Oprah,” Dr. McGraw said. ”I don’t substitute anybody else’s judgment for my own. Oprah has her plan and strategy, and I have my plan and strategy.”
While Ms. Winfrey may or may not agree with his decision, she has evidently decided to stay out of his way.
”I feel that a person should own their own name and make their own choices,” Ms. Winfrey said in a statement.
Retailers said it was too early to tell if the supplement products and power bars were selling, although they noted that their shelf space were being been squeezed to accommodate the many new brands of supplements seeking shares of the $1.6 billion market– trying to take business from established competitors like Slim-Fast, Atkins and Ensure.
According to some marketing experts, if consumers accept Dr. McGraw as a marketer, his potential as a pitchman will be great. His talk show, they contend, has already suggested the staying power of a Phil Donahue or even Ms. Winfrey.
”He knows that he’s got a popular following, and he’s taking advantage of that to further create an image of himself as a brand,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president for research at Horizon Media, a media consulting group. ”He’s only been on for two years. He’s already surpassed people that have been on for 10, 15 years.”