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

Published on: 2017-02-14



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.

About the Speaker

Anirban Mukhopadhyay 2
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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Obese. Photo by Marjan Lazarevski / Flickr. CC.

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