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Consumers misled about cause of obesity: study

Jan 13, 2015


Leanwashing obesity

Research from the Beedie School of Business shows that companies are misleading consumers by emphasizing lack of exercise as the central cause of weight gain, instead of poor diet.

New research from Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business indicates that food and drink manufacturers are contributing to the world’s growing obesity crisis through deceptive and confusing marketing.

The study found that the companies mislead consumers by underplaying the importance of diet in weight gain, instead incorrectly emphasizing lack of exercise as the central cause – a process they call “leanwashing”.

The paper, “Leanwashing: A Hidden Factor in the Obesity Crisis”, was co-authored by Brent McFerran, SFU’s Beedie School of Business; Aneel Karnani, University of Michigan; and Anirban Mukhopadhyay, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and was published in the California Management Review.

The researchers argue that the marketing and PR strategies of food and beverage companies inaccurately promote the perception that they are helping to solve the obesity crisis, and deflect attention from the fact that they are contributing to it by spreading and perpetuating misinformation to the public.

The study found that only approximately half of lay people correctly believe diet to be the primary cause of obesity.

Compounding this problem, consumers who mistakenly underestimate the importance of diet were found to be more overweight than those who believe that it is the primary cause of obesity.

The researchers note that a frequent marketing tactic utilized by food and beverage companies is to align themselves with sporting events – citing McDonalds’ and Coca Cola’s sponsorship of the Olympics as examples – and believe that this sort of conflicting message confuses consumers.

“Consumers see misleading headlines in the media and receive information about obesity from the millions of dollars that food and drink companies spend on advertising,” says study co-author Brent McFerran.

“It is therefore no wonder they are misinformed about the true cause of obesity, and we know that if someone is misinformed about the cause of an issue that will direct their approach incorrectly to solving the problem.”