'Leanwashing' marketing tactic used to drive junk-food sales

A team of researchers from international universities, including Simon Fraser in Vancouver, coined the term "leanwashing" last year. It was in response to a trend in advertising that links eating junk food while increasing physical activity.

Advertisers emphasize exercise rather than cutting back on their high-calorie products

Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks has been eating Skittles on the sidelines since he was a kid. (Seattle Seahawks)
An international team of university researchers, including from Simon Fraser in Vancouver, coined the term leanwashing last year. It was in response to a trend in advertising that links eating junk food with increasing physical activity.

In 2010, Michelle Obama launched a campaign called Let’s Move to end childhood obesity.
Originally, there was a lot of talk about reducing junk food and eating healthier. But apparently the U.S. food industry objected to such criticism coming from its government and reportedly engaged in lobbying that resulted in Let’s Move becoming mostly about moving.

Recent research reveals food and beverage marketing routinely overemphasizes physical activity as a way to prevent obesity. In contrast, corporate messaging rarely mentions calorie intake, even though evidence suggests it plays the central role in obesity.

The researchers referred to this message manipulation as leanwashing.

In another ad, we see Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch answering questions at a fake news conference.

Lynch famously eats Skittles on the sideline in every game, and it’s commonplace for ads to show fattening foods and beverages being consumed around physical activity. The implication is that exercise reduces the risk of getting fat.

But according to the American Medical Association, while exercise is helpful, its effects on weight loss are minor compared to diet. Since most marketers of sugary, fattening foods aren’t anxious to encourage us to reduce calorie intake, they focus on exercise.

In this ad from the summer of 2014, Coke set up an elaborate machine that required people to burn off 140 calories — the amount in a bottle of Coke — in order to get a free Coke.

The ad made burning off the calories in a sugary soft drink look fun and easy. But in reality, very few of us do 20 minutes of vigorous exercise for every soft drink we consume.

Regardless, food and beverage companies continue to form partnerships with physical activity organizations, hoping to get people exercising rather than reducing calories.

Thanks to leanwashing, research indicates that about half of us incorrectly identify lack of exercise as the main cause of obesity. Worse still, those who believe this are significantly more likely to be overweight.

All this suggests that leanwashing is a good way to keep us eating sugary, fattening foods — and feeling guilty about the exercise we’re not doing. 

Bruce Chambers is a syndicated advertising columnist for CBC Radio.