The portrayal of overweight persons by television commercials in the United States: an examination.

Author:Peterson, Robin T.

    The objective of this paper is to examine the depiction of overweight persons by television commercials in the United States. It is possible that the selection of advertising models by weight grouping has implications for the status and well-being of these individuals. In turn, obesity and overweight in general are significant problems that are associated with an attendant large number of ramifications.

    The United States, numerous other developed countries, and some developing nations are presently confronted with populations that are largely obese and are becoming increasingly more so. By all measures, the weight problem of the United States has grown to epidemic proportions even among children (Finkelstein & Trogdon, 2008). Two thirds of the United States citizenry are overweight or obese and sedentary lifestyles, calorie-dense foods, large portion sizes, excessive television viewing, and other factors are among the reported but not necessarily proven contributors (Bassett & Perl, 2004). From 1980 to 2004 the prevalence of overweight doubled for children and tripled for adolescents and much of the obesity problem is rooted in childhood and adolescence (Gerberding & Marks, 2004). Trends in body mass indexes and the percentage of obese and overweight persons are upward and accelerating rapidly (Rashad, 2005).

    In turn, these trends portend serious public health and other consequences. Only tobacco poses an equally large, potentially reversible, long term threat to the country's health and well being (Gerberding & Marks, 2004). In short, numerous indicators suggest that body weight is a substantial and growing problem.

    The negative aftermaths of excessive girth are not restricted to health matters. Many stout individuals develop a self image which embraces inadequacy, through continual reinforcement in the form of disparaging feedback from others (Pollitt, 2005). Numerous accusations of discrimination against overweight persons in hiring decisions have been advanced (Williams, 2009; Howell, 2005). An examination of undergraduate student attitudes indicated an impression that overweight job applicants possessed more negative work-related attributes than average weight applicants (Polinko & Popovich, 2001). Such attitudes are reflected in earnings. A regression study revealed that advanced weight lowers wages for white female by approximately two standard deviations (Cawley, 2004). One study revealed that many salespeople in the United States view overweight customers as undesirable and as commanding only limited funds for expenditure (Cleaver, 2004). Another revealed that certain high-fashion retailers do not offer womens' clothing in sizes suitable for fat persons, based upon the premise that stocking such merchandise would antagonize smaller size customers (Ritson, 2003).


    Some of the difficulties confronting obese individuals because of their weight may be brought about or magnified through mass media agents such as advertising messages. This has been the basis for litigation against fast food chains as regards responsibility for obesity (Adams, 2005). The mass media can inject negativity into self images and create impressions of self inadequacy. Multiple studies have pinpointed the media's use of an idealized image as a cause of significant body image problems (Richins, 1996). To date, the theoretical base for the majority of the research has relied upon Festinger's social comparison theory (1954) whereby individuals have a natural response to compare themselves to others. Recently, other theoretical themes have been discussed in the context of body image including Rosenberg's (1979) self-esteem scale and Thompson and Hirschman's (1995) poststructuralist analysis.

    Self-identity image advertisements have been especially identified as contributors to the ideal image concept. These promotions often persuade by presenting an image of an idealized person-type such as a "beautiful" woman ideal and target consumers are invited to use the product to project the self images to themselves and others. In turn, they can undermine a consumer's self esteem by collectively omitting images authentic for that sort of person --such as large women- (Bishop, 2000). Research has shown that women of all ages feel that models should be larger than they are currently and the use of "normal sized" women is the most effective in selling a product (Borland & Akram, 2007).

    Damaging effects on the self image are likely to be particularly acute when the image projected in the advertisement is not congruent with the ideal self image (Bosnjak & Brand, 2008; Chang, 2005) or when perceived prejudice experienced by portly individuals is attributed to personal failure to control weight, rather than the perceptions of others (Crocker, Cornwell, & Major, 1993). Conversely, when larger sized females are presented in advertisements, heavy women tend to experience increased self esteem (Loken & Peck, 2005). These and related findings have led some, but not many, advertisers to select normal and larger sized persons as advertising models (Anonymous, 2006).

    Cultural norms in the United States dictate the importance of being physically attractive, especially of being thin (Quinton & Hinton, 2008; Martin & Gentry, 1997). Women tend to view their bodies as objects and their physical beauty determines how they and others judge their overall value, while men tend to view their bodies as process, and power and function are more important criteria for evaluating their physical self (Franzoi, 1995).

    A content analysis of dating advertisements revealed that when selling the self, men market their financial and occupational resources, whereas women offer physical attractiveness and appealing body shape, consistent with traditional sex-role stereotypes and mating selection strategies (Jagger, 2001). However, with the increased reporting of steroid use among athletes, unparalled growth in muscle supplement sales, and the extensive use of the male body in advertisements, male body dissatisfaction has risen to the level where it is similar to that for women (Patino, 2005).

    Some advertisers have reacted to body image attitudes in a manner that promotes the usage of very thin models and the avoidance of those who are heavy. They recognize that eating disorders, particularly anorexia and bulimia are major problems, especially among women in the United States and other developed countries. This is bourne out by research, which shows that eating disorders affect many individuals and have numerous negative physical, emotional, and mental consequences for the victims and their families (Midlarsky & Motzbirg. 2008; Piran & Cormier, 2005). Social pressures to be slender have emerged as possible causal factors (Stice, Maxfield, & Wells, 2003).

    Of course, very few informed persons would attribute advertising as the major or even a significant cause of the disorders. However, it could have a role. Research has uncovered a significant relationship between the two disorders and exposure to advertising ((Zucker, et. al., 2002). And the amount of television viewing is significantly correlated with addiction to both afflictions (Moriarty & Harrison, 2008). This raises the issue--could the use of thin models create desires for body images which lead to or reinforce already existing eating disorders? Do advertisers depict ideal physical images that are not realistic for most persons? Research has not provided definitive answers to this issue. However the role of advertising is a factor to be considered.


  3. H1: In the television commercials examined the frequency of overweight models will be smaller (based upon their percentage of the total population) than the frequency of models who are not overweight.

    As regards this hypothesis, the percentage of overweight persons in the United States is 67.0% (Bassett & Perl, 2004). Research indicates that advertising spokesperson attractiveness is an ingredient for enhancing consumer attitudes toward the featured product or service and thinness is one of the more important elements of attractiveness (Koernig & Page, 2002; Krantz, Friedberg, & Andrews, 1985). Hence, there is motivation for selecting thin models. One study of body types on prime-time television programs revealed that only 14% of female and 24% of male characters were overweight or obese. Some studies have found that the popular media place substantial emphasis on thinness as an ideal of feminine beauty (Zetttei-Watson & Britton, 2008;Owen & Laurel-Seller, 2000).In some magazine advertisements digital manipulation of models is used to render models thinner than they actually are (Reaves, Hitchon, Park, & Yun, 2004). Overall, it appears that advertisers might be expected to avoid extensive utilization of heavy models.

  4. H2: In the television commercials examined the portrayal of overweight models will be less positive than the portrayal of models who are not overweight.

    The prevailing culture, as reflected in the mass media, tends to project a negative image of the excess- weight category (Brochu & Jorrison, 2007). A study of body types on prime time television showed overweight and obese characters as less likely to be considered attractive, to interact with romantic partners, or to display physical affection. They were less likely to interact with friends or to talk about dating and were more likely to be shown eating-generally they were associated with specific negative characteristics (Greenberg, Eastin, Hotschire, Lachtan, & Brownell, 2003).

    Other studies have reported that surplus weight persons possess negative stereotypes-they are often thought to be undisciplined, dishonest, sloppy, ugly, socially unattractive, sexually unskilled, and less likely to do productive work (Williams, 2008; Harris, Walters, & Waschull, 1991). The popular media is one of the central channels for such stereotypes because their...

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