How SlimFast Became A Billion-Dollar Diet Craze And Faded Away Into Health Fad Heaven

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, supermarket shelves around the US were suddenly overflowing with different types of dieting beverages and snacks, all promising effortless weight loss. SlimFast meal replacement shakes, which had been pulled from shelves in the 1970s, were re-released in 1984 to become a big part of this '80s diet beverage trend. SlimFast's history, however, goes much deeper than its celebrity endorsements and sudden rise to success. 

The company's history is deeply intertwined with ebbs and flows inherent to the dieting culture that was pervasive during the '80s and '90s, when shedding pounds by any means necessary took precedent over meeting minimum daily nutrition values. But much to the dismay of SlimFast’s inventor, S. Daniel Abraham, the product’s success waned almost as drastically as it had risen when the prominence of healthful living trends overtook the dieting mentality.

  • SlimFast Began In 1977, But Struggled After People Perished From Other Liquid Protein Diets, Prompting An FDA Warning

    SlimFast’s parent company, Thompson Medical Co., began its marketing journey in uncharted waters. Though pharmaceutical dieting pills had been popular since the development of dinitrophenol in the 1930s, manufactured liquid-based dieting products had yet to be mass produced and marketed.

    Because of producers’ and consumers’ unfamiliarity with modern liquid-based dieting, and perhaps due in part to irresponsible marketing, the sudden availability of the beverages in the late 1970s quickly led to the misuse of certain products. As a result, nearly 60 people allegedly perished after following one of these liquid dieting trends (including one from the book The Last Chance Diet), some of which promoted 300-calorie-per-day diets.

    The FDA jumped into action, issuing warnings about the dangers of liquid dieting products, which led to SlimFast, and other products of its kind, being swiftly removed from store shelves.

  • The Founder First Experimented With Appetite-Suppressing Gum In The '50s And '60s
    Photo: Thompson Medical Company / eBay

    The Founder First Experimented With Appetite-Suppressing Gum In The '50s And '60s

    Thompson Medical, SlimFast’s parent company, was established in 1945 by S. Daniel Abraham after he decided to leave his job at his family’s medicine company and branch out on his own. He acquired the rights to an itch-relieving cream, which he used to build up a reputation and establish his company. 

    From that point on, Abraham continued to grow his business, quickly expanding into diet products after observing their market success. His diet product line began with a hunger-suppressing gum he called Slim-Mint Gum. The gum, which contained a chemical called benzocaine and caused legal controversy with the FDA, was released in 1956. Its modest success led Abraham to also develop a diet pill, Figure-Aid, released in 1960. 

  • In 1990, SlimFast Launched A $100 Million Ad Campaign And Cornered The Soaring Meal-Replacement Market
    Video: YouTube

    In 1990, SlimFast Launched A $100 Million Ad Campaign And Cornered The Soaring Meal-Replacement Market

    Despite the struggles associated with the original release of SlimFast in 1977, Thompson Medical Co. decided to re-release the diet shake in the early '80s. By 1984, Abraham had already recorded earnings of $197 million thanks to SlimFast, which led him to continue pushing its development and promotion. 

    The product’s success skyrocketed after receiving a series of influential celebrity endorsements, so the company launched a $100 million advertising campaign in 1990, which reportedly reached 23 million people within the year.

    During this time, Abraham decided to establish the SlimFast brand as its own company outside of Thompson Medical.

  • Los Angeles Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda Used SlimFast To Lose 35 Pounds And Became The Brand's Spokesman

    In 1989, just as SlimFast was gearing up to take another swing at breaking into the diet beverage market (which had, until that point, been shaky at best), marketers caught wind of a weight-loss wager between Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda and two of his players, Orel Hershiser and Kirk Gibson: if Lasorda lost 35 pounds, the two players would each donate $20,000 to a charity of his choice. SlimFast shakes would help him do it. 

    The high-stakes wager was the promotional opportunity SlimFast needed to compete with the celebrity endorsements other weight-loss beverages were pulling in, such as Optifast’s agreement with Oprah Winfrey.

    After agreeing to have the wager sponsored by Ultra SlimFast, Lasorda lost the agreed-upon weight, and Hershiser and Gibson donated money to the Sisters of Mercy convent in Nashville, Tennessee, so the nuns could avoid eviction. It was the first highly successful campaign in a line of celebrity endorsements that launched SlimFast into the diet beverage stratosphere.

  • SlimFast Added An Array Of Celebrity Customers Turned Spokespeople, Including Kathie Lee Gifford And New York Mayor Ed Koch
    Video: YouTube

    SlimFast Added An Array Of Celebrity Customers Turned Spokespeople, Including Kathie Lee Gifford And New York Mayor Ed Koch

    When SlimFast brought on Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda as its first official celebrity endorser, the company experienced an impressive uptick in sales and customer engagement. According to research conducted by SlimFast, Lasorda was “an especially effective spokesman with female consumers, who found him to be credible because he was a man admitting to a weight problem on national television, and he was seeing successful results due to his use of the SlimFast product.”

    This research, combined with the campaign’s success, informed Abraham’s decision to expand SlimFast’s roster of celebrity spokespeople. Along with the company’s new slogan, “SlimFast way of life,” they began promoting a new collection of advertisements featuring endorsements from other celebrities like then-New York Mayor Ed Koch, Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford, Peter DeLuise, and Mel Torme.

  • Critics Worried SlimFast Was A Quick Fix That Didn't Teach Healthier Long-Term Habits

    Despite the diet shakes’ popularity, SlimFast and its competitors gained a less-than-positive reputation among doctors and dietitians. Aside from concerns about daily nutrient intake, doctors were also concerned the shakes offered a “no-brain approach to dieting,” and even if dieters lost weight, there was no learning curve associated with the process that suggested they would be able to keep the weight off without the shakes.

    “Nobody is teaching you how to eat once you’ve finished losing weight,” said nutritionist Mindy Hermann in a Washington Post article.  

    Many worried that the shakes, advertised as breakfast and lunch meal replacements, were simply delaying people’s bingeing habits until dinner.