In a bygone era long before the advent of Instagram, the only influencers of any significance were either actors, musical artists or athletes. It should come as no surprise then that some shaky associations were built between fitness-themed products and the celebrities who ostensibly used them, designed them or marketed them. But no matter how tangential or spurious a connection may have been between a fit celebrity and the workout item being offered that bore their names, they were all certainly willing to bank a buck or two in order to help those products reach the mainstream.
Most of these fitness cash grabs fit a theme, and some of them were more successful — and therefore more controversial — than others. They range from products of questionable authorship, to products of dubious benefit, to products that capitalized on muddled misconceptions in order to lure people in.
All of which is to say, here are four of the most questionable celebrity cash grabs in fitness history…
The Authorship Cash Grab:
Jeff O’Connell’s LL Cool J’s ‘Platinum Workout’ and 50 Cent’s ‘Formula 50’
Yes, LL Cool J and 50 Cent have impressive physiques. The two of them clearly put adequate time in at the gym to sculpt strong bodies in the 1990s and 2000s, and this obviously advanced the impression that they were knowledgeable enough in the areas of exercise and nutrition to dole out more than 240 pages of training and cooking advice apiece.
But was it really their advice? That’s really my gripe here: Both rappers’ books are co-authored by the same guy — Jeff O’Connell, the editor-in-chief of Bodybuilding.com, the former editor-in-chief of Muscle & Fitness and the former executive writer at Men’s Health. In addition to working with platinum-selling rappers, O’Connell has written similar books with actor Mario Lopez, Spartan Race developer Joe De Sana and several others.
Does O’Connell’s involvement in these projects mean that the headliners had no influence on the content of their books? Of course not. However, do I really think LL Cool J, 50 Cent or Mario Lopez sat down and wrote their own week-to-week dietary progressions, training regimens, cutting strategies and nutrition plans for inclusion in these books? I believe that about as much as I believe 50 Cent took the time to jot down his personal recipes for sesame chicken salad and veggie egg scrambles (Damn, homey!), both of which are included in his book. Just like I’m sure Lopez was the original source of his book’s recipe for the grilled ginger lamb chops and salmon with curry sauce (Come on, preppie!).
When all of these books follow essentially the same formula of mental preparation, basic nutrition, fitness fundamentals, workout plans for beginning-to-advanced trainees and a junior cookbook — and all of them have the same coauthor — how can you not perceive it as less of an earnest effort by the marquee talents to help their fans become fitter, and more of a cash grab with a trained fitness writer cutting and pasting materials together in the background?
The Minimalist-Fitness-Device Cash Grab: Suzanne Somers’ ThighMaster
Unbelievably, the ThighMaster still sells in various forms, and I can’t think of a worse piece of figurative fitness snake oil than this mockery of a muscle-builder. If we evaluate the tacit claims of this 1991 ThighMaster commercial against what we know to be true about fitness, we know that when the actress woman thanks the ThighMaster for enabling her to fit comfortably into an old pair of jeans, the only way it could legitimately have assisted her with this is if she’d used it as a makeshift shoe horn for pants (a “jeans horn”?).
This thing is not a calorie-burner, and I’d be willing to bet my life that no one ever lost weight based solely on their exertions with a Thigh Master.
Now, let’s get to the claims about muscle-building. Most infomercial fitness products either take a challenging fitness movement and make it somewhat easier for the uninitiated to replicate, or take a simple training movement and make it even more difficult for the benefit of advanced trainees. The ThighMaster is one of the rare products that A) is less beneficial than the machine exercises it seeks to replicate; B) severely limits your range-of-motion during the weightless exercises that you will be better off performing without the ThighMaster getting in the way; and C) encourages you to train body parts that the ThighMaster is in no way intended to address, like your chest and biceps, in ways that are either dangerous, or that you’re better off using no implements to train.
The All-Fat-Is-Bad-For-You Cash Grab: The George Foreman Grill
Let me clear about this straight out of the gate: There’s nothing wrong with the George Foreman Grill. I’ve owned more than one of them in my life, and they’ve worked wonderfully. My objection is aimed specifically at some of the health claims made during the grills ads.
A core component of the Foreman Grill’s advertising pitch had to do with its claim of possessing advantageous fat-eliminating, taste-preserving properties. To this claim, I have to ask a couple of essential questions — for starters, compared to what? When you place a burger, steak or any other piece of meat on the grate of an outdoor grill, where does the fat and moisture go? Obviously, it slips between the grill rods and into the charcoal and flame that’s engaged in the cooking of the meat.
It was a brilliant tactic by the Foreman Grill’s marketing team to turn a negative into a positive; they told the rubes watching the infomercial that the dripping of unsightly fat into a collection tray — which is a requirement to prevent an accumulation of grossness within the grill itself — is somehow a demonstration of the grill’s matchless health benefits over and above similar outdoor cooking methods that require less post-meal cleanup.
The other thing is, fat isn’t fundamentally unhealthy. If anything, it’s downright essential. Case in point: If you don’t ingest fat, your body can’t properly transport vitamins A, D, E and K into your bloodstream. Granted, you aren’t required to get your fat from the cooked remains of a dead animal, but treating dietary fat like it’s our mortal enemy is an unfortunate feature from an era when companies told us that we couldn’t become overweight if we didn’t eat fat, and siphoned the dietary fat out of some of our favorite foodstuffs and replaced it with sugar — the true culprit behind the majority of Americans’ unprecedented collective weight gain.
The Fresh-Juice-Can’t-Be-Bad Cash Grab: Jack LaLanne’s Power Juicer
It’s possible that no infomercial is saturated with worse misdirection than the one for Jack LaLanne’s Power Juicer. There’s a general presumption within the infomercial that fresh fruits and vegetables are inherently healthy, and that if a few are good, more of them must be great. This infomercial preys on a false premise laid by the USDA’s recommendation for fruit and vegetable consumption, and the presumption that your body treats the juice of an apple in exactly the same way that it would treat a whole apple.
Long story short: When an apple, a pear or any other fruit enters your body in its solid form, the dietary fiber within them slows your digestion and prevents your blood sugar from spiking. However, if too much sugar enters the blood, your body converts it into adipose tissue (i.e., body fat) — and it doesn’t matter where the sugar originally came from if it’s more than your body can manage.
Which brings me back to the audacity of the abominable LaLanne infomercial above. Early in, Jack and Elaine LaLanne and their co-host, supermodel Carol Alt, begin to concoct fruit-laden juice blends. Their first contains a bushel of grapes (100 calories), a cup of raspberries (65 calories), a cup of blueberries (80 calories), a whole orange (62 calories) and a slice of watermelon (85 calories). Under the guise of health, the LaLannes have just promoted a juice blend containing in the neighborhood of 400 calories to their viewers. This drink is teeming with sugar that’s been freed from the shackles imposed by its digestion-slowing fiber, and the bulk of it will rapidly enter the consumer’s bloodstream and be converted into fat.
The LaLannes then demonstrate the creation of three more blended juice drinks of similar ingredients— all of which fall between 180 to 260 calories — before Jack LaLanne makes the following pronouncement: “I think soda should be against the law! Listen to this: There’s up to 10 teaspoons of sugar in a 12-ounce can of soda! Think about that!”
He basically had the nerve to lambaste a 12-ounce can of soda containing up to 160 calories derived from 10 teaspoons of sugar immediately after he just provided his viewers with the precise instructions to make four different drinks containing the equivalent of between 11 and 25 teaspoons of sugar.
Just because the sugary fluid was pumped out of a pomegranate doesn’t mean your body can handle it any better than refined sugar. Frankly, your body isn’t that smart. However, the producers of this infomercial were very smart by capitalizing on the public’s blind trust of fruit. But that’s good marketing, not good health.