Lay Theories of Obesity: Corporate Leanwashing and the Obesity Crisis as Market Failure


Obesity crisis
Anirban Mukhopadhyay
2 Mar 2017 (Thursday)
4:00 - 5:00 pm
IAS1038, 1/F, Lo Ka Chung Building, Lee Shau Kee Campus, HKUST


Key Insights

In this Academic Seminar, IEMS Faculty Associate Anirban Mukhopadhyay reveals a link between obesity and attitudes towards diet. His study shows that people who believe that exercise is more important than diet were more likely to be overweight. Conversely, people who believed that diet was more important were less likely to be overweight. The culprit is the ‘healthy lifestyle’ myth – that anyone can control their weight with sufficient exercise. This ‘healthy lifestyle’ myth purported by Big Food effectively shifts culpability onto the consumer, and away from unhealthy-yet-profitable food products.

Despite sizable efforts to educate consumers through food labels, there is lack of information surrounding people’s food choices. Consumers are usually unaware of what ingredients are in their food items – this is especially true for children, who base their choices solely on taste. These negative externalities are instead left to insurance providers, the healthcare sector, or private individuals. An efficient market environment means free trade with information and transparency about what is in food and the effects on consumers. This case of imperfect market information can be addressed through regulations, government schemes and public-sector intervention.

Research shows that sugar taxes can improve public wellbeing and allow authorities to price externalities into food options. In Hong Kong, a sugar tax to pressure consumers to consider their food choices may work especially well as the city has shifted away from a healthier, traditional diet towards convenience foods. The shift is driven by the increasing complexity of modern life: high housing costs and small kitchens, incentivizing people to favor easier food options. Government intervention does not necessarily prevent a free market, but rather can be used for correcting market failures and to stem the rise in obesity-related diseases. What is needed now is for policy actors, the academic sector and the food industry to act.



Obesity is a worldwide problem with serious economic and social costs. In our program of research, we study what laypeople believe about the causes of obesity, and the consequences of these beliefs at the individual and societal levels. In contrast to medical research which agrees that a poor diet is the single greatest determinant of obesity, we find that only about half of laypeople implicate this factor. This has serious consequences because people who mistakenly underestimate the role of diet, and instead attribute obesity to insufficient exercise, are more likely to be overweight than people whose beliefs are correct. We trace these misperceptions to “leanwashing” by marketers of processed food and beverages, specifically, the lobbying, public relations, and corporate social responsibility campaigns which consistently overemphasize the lack of exercise as the cause of obesity. We bridge these insights with perspectives from the fields of corporate strategy and public economics to analyze the worldwide obesity crisis as a case of market failure, and thereby evaluate possible corrective actions.

Presentation Slides

About the Speaker

Anirban Mukhopadhyay (PhD, Columbia) is Professor of Marketing and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies at HKUST Business School. His research examines the interplay between consumers’ lay beliefs, emotions, and self-regulatory decisions, and his substantive interests include food-related decision making, field experimentation related to behavioral economics, and interventions that increase subjective wellbeing. Anirban is a past winner of the Early Career Award of the Society for Consumer Psychology, has co-chaired the Annual Winter Conference of the Society for Consumer Psychology, and was recognized as a Young Scholar by the Marketing Science Institute. He is currently Co-Editor of the Journal of Consumer Psychology, and has served as Associate Editor at the Journal of Marketing Research, Area Editor at the Journal of Consumer Psychology, and on the editorial review boards of the Journal of Consumer Research and the International Journal of Research in Marketing. He was previously on the faculty of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

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