English Not Too Fond of Weight Watchers' New Spokesperson

Article excerpt

To Howard J. Rubenstein, it was a no-brainer. His long-time client Weight Watchers International needed a new spokeswoman; a new client, Sarah Ferguson, the duchess of York, believed in healthy eating, needed money to pay off debts, and, perhaps most important, was a publicity machine.

"She just has to smile, and the cameras go off," he said.

So Rubenstein, the New York public relations man, invited the duchess and Albert Lippert, Weight Watchers' founder, to a dinner party. The blind date took, and last month the slimmed-down duchess - - more than 50 pounds lighter than the 203 pounds that earned her the stinging "Duchess of Pork" label from the British press -- signed a one-year contract with executives of Heinz, Weight Watchers' owner. Now, for a reported $1 million, the duchess will travel the country on Weight Watchers' behalf. That contract -- along with smaller ones to appear in commercials for Ocean Spray cranberry cocktails and to endorse Olympus cameras - - has raised hackles all over Britain. "What I think about this last of the duchess' actions is probably unprintable," Hugh Trevor-Roper, the noted historian, asserted in the conservative Daily Telegraph. "Only somebody this vulgar could take the British royalty into this kind of situation." Indeed, in England, where the press has never let up on its relentlessly savage attacks, the duchess' "vulgarity" has made her a pariah whose endorsement would make people cringe, not buy. But in the United States, infamy sells. Celebrity "bad boys," in a line that stretches from Dennis Rodman back at least to Jimmy Connors, have parlayed naughtiness into endorsement contracts. Advertising experts say the time is right for a "bad girl" to join these ranks -- and one with the tabloid appeal of fallen royalty is a prime candidate. "This may be a real breakthrough for the advertising business," said Martin Blackman, chief executive of Blackman & Raber, an advertising consulting firm. She could, of course, fall flat, her endorsements perceived as just more gold-digging, but the betting is that she won't. The duchess' outre wardrobe, weight problems, marital infidelities, flagrant spending -- and willingness to show public contrition for all of it -- have already made her a darling in the United States, where it has never seemed inconsistent to admire both royalty and rebels. "Americans line up at her book signings in record-breaking numbers," said Nancy Josephson, the duchess' American agent."They tell her, `We can relate to you, you've had a tough time, but you've overcome obstacles.' " Not surprisingly, the duchess is not fond of reporters, and refused to be interviewed for this article. The commercials for Ocean Spray Cranberries -- for which the duchess is reportedly getting $500,000 -- will do little to win over the British press. In a 30-second spot for LightStyle, Ocean Spray's reduced-calorie drink, she dumps a bucket of ice on some paparazzi clamoring outside her window -- presumably, the same ones who immortalized her bare-breasted sun-bathing in front of her children, and her ex-beau John Bryan's attention to her feet. And in a 15-second quickie for CranApple cocktail, she says that she is so "untraditional" as to serve CranApple instead of tea, and that she understands why Americans dumped all that tea in the harbor. "In America, rebellion against the royal family and convention is admired, but here she is disliked for exactly the same reasons," said Harold Brooks-Baker, publisher of Burke's Peerage, a well-known royal family watcher and commentator. The Mirror, a British tabloid, said the ads would not be shown in England "because her royal in-laws would choke on it." But the more practical reason is simply that Fergie is not a commercial asset in Britain. Is she really one here? More specifically, is the endorsement of a controversial duchess who has been a yo-yo dieter for years relevant to diet programs and beverages? …