Are advertisers the real Biggest Losers?

Why ads targeting plus-sized consumers never fail to patronize or criticize their audience.

Huge, a television drama about teenagers at fat camp, opened its first episode with a striptease. Challenged to peel down to her swimsuit in front of her fellow campers, Willamina, played by Hairspray‘s Nikki Blonsky, removed her clothes with a burlesque dancer’s zeal, complete with slaps to her generous posterior. The plus-sized peeler act served as a mission statement for the show: don’t expect these fat folks to fret constantly about their girth. As Willamina says: “I’m down with my fat.”

The show’s attitude toward its plus-sized characters has proven popular with viewers. Huge‘s debut on ABC Family attracted the cable channel’s largest-ever audience of women between the ages of 18 and 49.

But Huge is just one in a growing herd of shows — like Lifetime’s Drop Dead Diva and the upcoming Mike & Molly on CBS — featuring overweight people who are not solely defined by their need to shed pounds. Indeed, plus-sized people are gradually being accepted — and in some cases celebrated — by popular culture. Just listen to Canadian rapper Kardinal Offishall’s “Body Bounce,” a come-on to a curvaceous woman that’s enjoying constant radio play this summer. Elle magazine’s French edition devoted its April issue to plus-sized models while other fashion magazines, like Glamour and V, have employed models with visible fat rolls. Even Saks Fifth Avenue, the high-end retailer, announced last month it would start selling plus-sized couture.

It’s surprising it’s taken as long as it has, what with 68% of Americans and 52% of Canadians either overweight or obese. The plus-sized population, until recently a silent majority, is finally represented on prime-time television, runways, pop radio and magazine covers. And yet, oddly enough, the one place where plus-sized people still can’t be found is in advertisements.

With other groups who have been drawn recently into the advertising landscape — working moms, blacks, Asians, gays and lesbians — the message has been, “Welcome. We accept you and we invite you to give us your money.” So it seems odd that on TV and in magazines, larger people still appear only in the “before” pictures of weight-loss commercials. For a long time now, advertisers have shared the same philosophy as television programs like The Biggest Loser and Celebrity Fit Club, which capitalize on the notion that you can love yourself if you’re fat, but you’ll love yourself more if you’re thin. But if advertisers want plus-sized people’s money, why don’t they appeal to their sense of belonging and self-worth, like they do with every other group?

The fact is that advertising’s fat-free zone reflects a wider social ambivalence toward weight. Collectively, we have mixed feelings, and these mixed feelings make it difficult for marketers to know exactly how to talk to this majority group. On the one hand, they can’t appear to be criticizing plus-sized people for their weight. On the other hand, they can’t appear to be endorsing what is widely perceived as an unhealthy lifestyle. It’s a path that must be trodden with extreme caution. “Advertising is a trailing indicator of social change,” says Bruce Philp, the Toronto-based president of GWP Brand Engineering. “There is no commercial advantage to take a risk on something like that.”

Making the issue even thornier is the fact that fatness has long been cultural shorthand to tell audiences that a character is either stupid (e.g., Homer Simpson) or poor (e.g., Roseanne). It’s hard to defy these cultural stereotypes in a 30-second television spot. And so the resulting sales pitch tends to be as garbled as the public’s own feelings about issues surrounding weight and obesity.

One thing we do know is that there’s a proven marketing advantage to promising self-improvement. Consider Subway, whose most prominent pitchman since 2000 has been Jared Fogle, a man whose sole accomplishment is losing 245 pounds on a diet consisting of the company’s sandwiches. When Subway briefly parted ways in 2005 with its milquetoast mascot, the company’s sales dropped 10%. Subway’s corporate identity is now built around helping America stay trim. The company offered to pay $1,000 to Shay Sorrells, the heaviest Biggest Loser contestant in the show’s history, for every pound she lost after her season’s finale.

The sandwich chain is also an early supporter of Mike & Molly, the upcoming sitcom about lovers who meet at Overeaters Anonymous, from the creator of Two and a Half Men. Not only has the chain bought advertising on the unaired show, but it is pursuing other partnerships, like brand integrations, as well. “America is more plus-sized than we’d like to admit sometimes,” Tony Pace, Subway’s chief marketing officer, recently told Ad Age. “The fact that there’s more programming acknowledging that is probably a good thing, for us to keep the issue of healthy eating active.”

Yet while Subway is happy to have Fogle pose with his old, tent-like pants at press events, it suffered a minor public relations crisis when news circulated that he’d regained some of his former girth. The fact of the matter is that Subway — like Jenny Craig and other successful weight-loss brands — happily acknowledges plus-sized America, but only as a problem that needs to be solved.

To be sure, there are examples of advertisers celebrating larger people as they are, but they tend to be so rare that they become news stories unto themselves. Lane Bryant, a U.S. clothing chain for plus-sized women, caused a commotion in April when it claimed ads for its lingerie had been rejected by ABC and Fox. (The networks said the model’s exposed cleavage, and not her curvy frame, motivated their decision.)

Perhaps the most prominent example of a company employing plus-sized models is Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, which encourages women to celebrate their wrinkles, freckles and less-than-svelte physiques. In the first year of the campaign, U.S. sales of Dove products increased by 6% while the ads also earned Dove coverage on everything from CNN to The Oprah Winfrey Show. “It’s been incredibly successful for Dove,” says Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business. “It hit on both a psychographic and demographic issue, this notion of ???I’m beautiful, even if I’m a little chunky.'”

The campaign had its missteps, though. In one attention-getting move, the company created a billboard in downtown Toronto featuring a plus-sized model and then encouraged people to vote on whether she was “fat or fab.” The billboard displayed the results. It was removed when 51% of people opted for fat over fabulous, transforming the message from uplifting to mean. The campaign also drew criticism from people like Richard Roeper, a Chicago newspaper columnist. “If I want to see plump gals baring too much skin, I’ll go to Taste of Chicago, OK?” he wrote.

While Roeper was widely chastised for his views, recent research suggests not even fat people want to see fat people in their advertisements. A paper published this spring in the Journal of Consumer Research found people with a high body mass index (BMI) felt a drop in self-esteem not only when looking at advertisements featuring thin people, but also when looking at those featuring heavier people. “When we’re watching advertisements, if we’re paying attention at all, we’re trying to see some better version of ourselves in what’s being sold,” says Philp.

Also noteworthy was the effect of plus-sized models on consumers with average and skinny builds. For the thin, these ads offered an ego boost, which suggests shows like Huge and The Biggest Loser offer affirmation to a different demographic than some might assume. “We use those experiences to calibrate our own sense of how normal we are,” says Philp. “When we’re watching a TV show that involves people trying to lose weight, there’s some part of us that says, ???Well, at least I’m not that bad.'”

In fact, the study showed only one group can be swayed by advertisements featuring overweight people, and it is neither the very thin nor the very fat, but those in the mushy middle. People with normal body weight were more inclined to diet and exercise and less inclined to eat after exposure to ads featuring moderately heavy models.

According to Middleton, however, it is not the fact that North Americans are widening that will ultimately drive the changes to how prominently plus-sized people are featured in advertising, it’s the fact that they’re aging. “If you’re targeting a product that’s aimed at the 40-somethings or the 30-somethings, you don’t show super-skinny models, because that is totally outside where they perceive themselves. Yes, it’s a goal, but it’s a goal too far.”

Instead, advertisers need to show their audience the best possible version of themselves — a goal that seems attainable, if unlikely. As the population ages, it’ll mean women with softer curves and men without six-pack abs. Covergirl now uses Queen Latifah, the full-figured 41-year-old rapper and actress, as one of its models. Crystal Renn, a model who fluctuates between sizes 10 and 14, will play a prominent part in Jean Paul Gaultier’s upcoming fall campaign. And Britain’s equalities minister recently touted Christina Hendricks, the curvy star of Mad Men, as a healthy role model for young women. The advertising world may not share Huge‘s accepting attitude toward fat, but it may soon be forced to accept new definitions of average.

“We’re maybe at the very beginning of a reframing of what is attractive,” says Middleton. “When you’ve got half the population that’s 40 and above, it ain’t a skinny 18-year-old any longer.”