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Boost Business With Positive Body Image Marketing

Help your clients gain a healthy perspective on what it truly means to be fit.

What words and images do you use to advertise your personal fitness training business? Traditional fitness ads that feature thin, buff models with seemingly perfect bodies resonate with only a very small portion of the general public—those who are already “converted” to staying fit. But what about the millions of potential clients who are sedentary or underactive and who most need your services?

Could body-beautiful advertising alienate these folks and actually deter them from exercising? Do such ads even go so far as to perpetuate negative stereotypes about overweight people? The findings of one recent study suggest that exercise science students tend to harbor negative attitudes and biases toward obese people (Chambliss et al. 2004)—a fact that may be reflected in the ads that health clubs use to promulgate the thin-equals-fit message.

Besides sending the wrong message to consumers, “body-beautiful” advertising may actually translate to missed revenue for fitness professionals. By alienating prospective clients, stereotypical fit-body images or messages may be cutting directly into your own bottom line. But it’s easy to overhaul your advertising approach in favor of more productive and realistic marketing strategies that can help boost your business—and maybe the fitness industry’s professional image, too.

How to Make Positive Body Image Ads Effective

An effective ad doesn’t blend into a sea of others that look just like it. Crafting a clever message that grabs the public’s attention while standing apart from traditional marketing takes some effort and thought. Here are eight tactics you can employ today to develop a successful advertising campaign that promotes a positive body image.

Step 1.

Consider Your Clients’ Perspectives

To create marketing that shines above all those ubiquitous perfect-body ads, consider what matters most to your existing and prospective clients. Start by asking, “What do my clients/prospects relate to? What are the important elements in their lives?”

You should also determine what type of exercise setting would feel most comfortable to potential clients. For example, a typical fitness ad might depict two or more people working out in exercise attire that reveals their buff bodies. However, scientific studies have found that people (usually overweight women) with high levels of social physique anxiety (SPA) (the kind of anxiety people feel about others evaluating their bodies in public) view coed exercise settings and scantily clad female exercisers unfavorably (Crawford & Eklund 1994; Eklund & Crawford 1994; Ransdell 1998; Sinden et al. 2003). And in another survey of Americans, 61% of respondents said, “I would prefer to exercise where no one could see me” (American Sports Data 2003). Knowing this, how would you advertise to prospects who might report high SPA or apprehension about exercising in front of others?

Step 2.

Evoke Emotion

Grab attention by challenging traditional fitness stereotypes and body image obsession. Think of all the media attention that Jamie Lee Curtis received when she appeared in a women’s magazine last year without benefit of makeup and airbrushing. Turns out, the 40-something actress’s real-life look struck a chord with many readers, who responded positively. Yet had she appeared in a more glamorous and “perfect” photo, there would likely have been little or no fanfare because consumers are so accustomed to seeing celebrities and models in an unrealistically favorable light.

Your advertising goal is to grab attention and elicit a response. While images of attractive, thin people can elicit powerful emotions that sell product, fewer consumers are buying into that kind of message. In fact, one study found that 50% of women aged 35–40 deem these types of ads to be “old-fashioned” and 65% consider advertising aimed at women to be patronizing (Crawford 2004).

Step 3.

Leave ’Em Laughing

Use humor or irony in your ads in a way that’s counterintuitive without being offensive. Consider the case of FitCity for Women, a chain of all-women clubs based in Vancouver, British Columbia, whose tag line reads “Fit Doesn’t Mean Perfect.” In a recent ad campaign that poked fun at ridiculous get-fit-quick claims, one well-received ad caught readers off-guard with this tantalizing promise: “Drop 6 dress sizes in 8 weeks. Right after you win the lottery.”

Step 4.

Focus on Feeling

Pick up on the positive feelings associated with fitness and self-image, such as increasing energy, confidence and inner and outer strength. The Curves® television commercials do this quite well by showcasing radiant (but not too thin) women who relate how going to the women-only chain helped them gain new confidence.

Step 5.

Reinforce a Philosophy

Create an empowering tag line or clever message that links positive body image with a healthy lifestyle or forward-thinking philosophy. Years ago, Kellogg’s® took this kind of approach with its highly successful, award-winning campaign, “Reshape Your Attitude,” for Special K® breakfast cereal. In one commercial, men addressed the camera and made surprising statements, such as “I have my mother’s thighs, and I have to accept that.” This humorous ad was successful because it spoke to a common belief system regarding body acceptance.

Step 6.

Depict Attractiveness in a Realistic Light

Rather than focusing solely on appearance, create an ad that underscores the message that improved appearance is but one benefit of exercise, not the main goal. A recent study conducted by AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) found that women aged 45–54 were more likely than their younger counterparts to feel that it wasn’t necessary always to look your best. Results like these suggest that more and more consumers—especially mature clients—may appreciate that there is more to fitness than simply looking attractive.

Step 7. Practice Gender Equity

Don’t assume that it is only your female clients who will benefit from positive body image marketing. Today’s fitness ads often depict unrealistically muscular men as well. Although women have been inundated with unreal ads for decades, men are increasingly being objectified in the media (Pope et al. 2000). The percentage of male models shown in various states of undress significantly increased in print ads for two popular women’s magazines over a 40-year period, while men shown in another magazine’s editorial pages also got notably leaner and more muscular from the 1970s to the 1990s (Pope et al. 2000).

Step 8. Make It Match

Complement any visual images you use with the ad’s headline and text, so that your message appears genuine. For example, pairing copy about your studio’s acceptance of all shapes, ages and abilities with a photo of a 21-year-old bodybuilder-type baring his cut abs wouldn’t be the wisest way to attract male clients who are obese, older or seeking rehab. If you cater to bodybuilders or fitness competitors, hard-body images may work best. Otherwise, match every detail of your ad to your target clientele.

The Financial & Emotional Payoff

Marketing your services as a personal fitness trainer using realistic advertising can benefit your business by attracting clients who may previously have felt too intimidated, unmotivated or unwelcome to start an exercise program. Even more rewarding, you may help all your clients improve their well-being and gain a healthier perspective on what it truly means to be fit.

Positive Body Image Advertising 101

Here are some elements to include when creating images and text for ads with a positive body image slant:

  • various body shapes and sizes
  • cultural and racial diversity
  • a range of ages
  • men and women interacting in a nonsexualized way
  • models wearing realistic and appropriate exercise clothing
  • a supportive or private setting and/or a family-oriented theme
  • subjects, especially women, in strong or active positions versus passive or nonactive poses
  • full-body photos or head shots versus dismembered body parts
  • friendly versus unfriendly or intimidating facial expressions
  • before-and-after promotions that celebrate fitness beyond weight loss

    Additional Resources


www.About-Face.org. Organization offering media education, outreach and activism. Site includes a gallery of offending ads; a gallery of winning ads; guidelines for writing letters to advertisers; resources; and research.

www.JeanKilbourne.com. Site with resources and reading on images of women in the media and advertising.

www.Media-Awareness.ca. Canadian, nonprofit media literacy organization providing initiatives, articles and education for critical thinking about the media in young people.

IDEA Articles

Franco, S. 2001. Advertising for results. IDEA Fitness Manager (May), 10–11.

Vogel, A. 2002. Boosting body image in your classes. IDEA Fitness Edge (April–May), 1–5.

Vogel, A. 2002. Marketing with positive body image. IDEA Fitness Manager (July–August), 10–13.

Walker, P. 2001. Fit versus fat: What’s weight got to do with it? IDEA Health & Fitness Source (February), 26–33.


American Sports Data. 2003. February 27, 2003, press release; retrieved from http://cms.ihrsa.org/IHRSA/ viewPage.cfm?pageId=1070.
Chambliss, H.O., et al. 2004. Attitudes toward obese individuals among exercise science students. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 36, 468–74.
Crawford, K. 2004. Miss Understood. http://money .cnn.com; retrieved September 22, 2004.
Crawford, S., & Eklund, R. 1994. Social physique anxiety, reasons for exercise, and attitudes toward exercise settings. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 16, 70–82.
Eklund, R., & Crawford, S. 1994. Active women, social physique anxiety, and exercise. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 16, 431–48.
Pope, H.G., et al. 2000. The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession. New York: The Free Press.
Ransdell, L.B. 1998. Social physique anxiety in postmenopausal women. Journal of Women and Aging, 10, 19–39.
Sinden, A.R., et al. 2003. Older women’s reactions to revealing and nonrevealing exercise attire. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, 11 (4).


Concerned about your place in the new fitness industry? We have 40 years of experience supporting pros just like you! Let’s create a new wellness paradigm together—IDEAfit+ is the extra edge you need. Once you team up with IDEA, be sure to take full advantage of all the benefits of membership.

Amanda Vogel, MA

Amanda Vogel, MA, is a fitness professional and the owner of Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for fitness professionals. She writes for IDEA, Health, Prevention, and Self, and has co-authored books on postnatal fitness and yoga. With a master's degree in human kinetics, Amanda has worked in the fitness industry for more than 15 years, including time spent as a program director and vice president for a chain of all-women clubs in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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