Times are tough in the online content racket, and a number of prominent Web sites have cut back their staffs in hopes they can profit from getting lean.

But one lesser-known site recently found success by adding a little fat about 60 pounds worth, to be precise.

TheSpark, a humor site posted by a publisher of online study guides, managed to draw nearly 1.5 million visitors to its latest "science" project. The attraction: watching two skinny people try to get fat as quickly as possible.

The site at www.thespark.com offered to pay $3,000 to a pair of volunteers who could gain 30 pounds in 30 days. While many scam diet plans have promised to do the same trick in reverse, few have pondered the possibilities of spinning the scale in the other direction few, that is, before it occurred to Christian Rudder, TheSpark's relatively scrawny managing editor.

"It wasn't about social mores we were trying to transgress," Rudder said. "We wanted to watch people put on the chub."

More than 300 people applied to participate, half of them young women. Many of the men were either too scrawny to have had a chance of succeeding or, alternately, appeared to have already won. "If those fat guys gained another 30 pounds," Rudder said, "nobody would have noticed the extra roll."

Rudder ended up choosing Eric, a 174-pound skinny guy from Cincinnati, and Nicole, a svelte 121-pound former homecoming queen from Alabama. Both traveled to Boston and shared an apartment for a month while attempting to add profitable folds of flab to their fit physiques.

They began by climbing on high-tech scales that showed Eric already had 17 percent body fat "a good start." Nicole's body, though, was just 9.5 percent fat. "She'll need to quadruple the fat on her frame in the next 30 days," the site said, "which might require daily doses of the rare weight-gaining vitamin, highly-unlikelium."

Pigging out

Both contestants began with a feast of pizza, doughnuts and Chinese take-out that, like many of their meals, was captured on film and shared with the online world. They also posed for weigh-in photos every day in their underwear so the audience could track every fluctuation in their fattening bodies.

When the first ridges of cellulite appeared on either side of Nicole's panty strap, the site helpfully pointed them out with big red arrows. Eric's expanding waist was referred to as "the fastest growing housing development in the U.S."

Both were subjected to similar commentary on the site's discussion boards, where observers also offered suggestions for fattening meals sort of an ad hoc antidote for a Richard Simmons workout tape.

"Nicole definitely had more fans than Eric did because she was showing the weight more," Rudder said. "She would grimace sometimes when we'd post the pictures of her cellulite up there, but they both knew that would be the deal going in."

Nicole explained on the site that she wanted to protest society's tendency to judge women by their appearance. Eric, though, felt no need for such justifications. "Luckily I'm a guy," he wrote, "so society doesn't have very high expectations for my looks. As long as I can fit in an airplane seat and don't wear a muumuu, I can skate on by."

But there would be no skating during the contest, or any other activity that might burn valuable calories. Eric spent his days watching movies, while Nicole hung out in the apartment playing Scrabble against herself not exactly the stuff of Gatorade commercials.

Far from Disneyfied

By the end, both contestants had swelled into gelatinous caricatures of their former selves. Eric reached his 30-pound weight gain goal, but only after guzzling several quarts of water before his final weighing. Nicole fell a few pounds short, but TheSpark decided to pay each of them the $3,000 prize.

What's the lesson to be learned here?

Rudder would be the first to say there isn't one it was just a lark, meant to entertain TheSpark's younger audience. But the fact that such antics attracted so much attention based strictly on word of mouth bodes well for other adventurous Web publishers willing to steer clear of corporate-style content.

"Because there's so much venture capital involved in these online companies, it tends to whitewash everything, sterilize it. Everything looks like Yahoo or MSN," Rudder said. "People respond to having a well-run, robust site that isn't Disneyfied."

To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at joes@azstarnet.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611.

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