Picture this happy scene: A pretty, smiling, fortysomething woman sheds 48 pounds in three months.

"I was so overweight, my teenagers were embarrassed to be seen with me," she says. Then her world turned around, thanks to the "Light-Years Ahead" weight-loss program at St. Joseph's Hospital. "When my doctor told me I had high blood pressure and I was a good candidate for a heart attack, I decided to get serious," she says. "So I chose St. Joe's."

"Get serious"? Get serious.
You may have seen her picture in splashy newspaper ads as part of the hospital's "I Chose St. Joe's" campaign. You may have thought the hospital's "weight-management program" was out of this world.

It may be, but the only sure thing is that the smiling, happy mom is not of this world. She didn't choose St. Joe's. St. Joe's chose her.

The woman in these newspaper ads is a Paradise Valley model named Linda Fisler. She wasn't really a fat person. She's never attended the hospital's "weight-management" program. She's never lost 48 pounds--she only weighs about 100. The quotes aren't from Fisler; they're not even quotes from any patient at the hospital. And the results shown are not the actual results of any particular patient.

The stuff about shedding pounds came from Sandoz, a pharmaceutical company that makes Optifab, a powdered diet formula.

Hospital spokespeople say it's the kind of "generic" story they hear daily--kind of a "typical" life in the fat lane.

Let's return to the story of the self-described "new" mom.
"After three months, I've lost 48 pounds," she says in the ad. "And my blood pressure is back to normal. Now, instead of my kids being embarrassed, it's me who's turning red because they always want to show off their `new' mom. But, I think I can handle it."

But can you believe it? Let's ask.
Jane Houmes, the hospital's program director, says the ad represents what patients can "realistically expect" from a St. Joe's treatment. She describes the tearful but happy story as "typical comments made by a conglomeration of experiences with the program."

Kristen Brignall, a marketing assistant for the hospital, points out that "there's no name in the ad." That's right. There is no name. Unlike another, almost identical ad in the "I Chose St. Joe's" campaign. That one quotes a neurosurgeon named V.K.H. Sonntag as saying he picked the hospital despite the fact that "I could practice neurosurgery almost anywhere."

In some ways, it is a relief to know that Sonntag really is a neurosurgeon at St. Joe's Barrow Neurological Institute.

These two ads, which sure look the same, are different, people at the hospital insist. The Sonntag ad, using a real person, is a "testimonial" ad. The anti-obesity ad, using a model, is described as "talent advertising."

Linda Bentheim, a hospital spokeswoman, compares the anti-obesity ad to a cosmetics commercial. "You know the woman in a Maybelline commercial is an actor," she says. "And you probably know you are not going to look like the model when you use their products. But, what you are going to find, just like that ad says, is that Maybelline gives you longer eyelashes. What's critical is, if the information that we're sharing of the program itself accomplishes what we say it can accomplish."

Longer eyelashes are one thing. A longer lifespan is another.
What does St. Joe's ad agency say? Bill Lavidge of Drackett & Lavidge points the finger right at New Times.

"Check out your own Romance ads," Lavidge says. "It's the same thing. What's the difference between advertising for the brokenhearted and lonely with models representing real people and the advertisement we ran? You guys even use the same modeling agency as us."

Well, Bill, nobody's perfect. But check out the bottom line in the recent Romance ads. The line that says "models." There's nothing like that in the anti-obesity ad. Besides, we're talking about a hospital soliciting business from people who may have major health problems. (Not that being lonely is not a problem.)

So, could anyone be confused by the St. Joe's ad? "They'd be no more confused than anyone watching TV that sees a headache commercial and watches them take two Excedrin and the headache goes away," says Lavidge.

Speaking of headaches, Lavidge says that anonymous letters blasting the anti-obesity ad that went to both the hospital and the media were probably the work of an agressive competitor trying to steal business or damage the reputation of Drackett & Lavidge.

On the other hand, he says, "I think we're going to have a long talk about the advertising and discuss whether or not it should be used. We don't want to create an issue.