The Logical Conclusion of Empowerment Marketing Is Companies Campaigning on Their Own Failings

Have you heard? Weight Watchers wants you to love yourself—to understand you’re more than mere numbers on a scale.

The May/June issue of Weight Watchers magazine—part of a large corporate entity that encompasses both the memberships and branded food offerings—will include a photo spread featuring “Weight Watchers members of varying ages and body types who agreed to pose with minimal—and frequently no—clothing,” explains AdWeek, which covered the move with the headline, “11 Women Posed Naked for Weight Watchers Magazine to Celebrate Natural Beauty: Highlights brand’s shift from shedding pounds to instilling pride.”


Inside the article you’ll find this quote from Weight Watchers magazine editor Theresa DiMasi:

“One thing we hear over and over again is that life doesn’t start until you’re 30 pounds thinner,” DiMasi says. “For women, this negative self body talk keeps coming up over and over. But one of the things that happens in Weight Watchers is that, along your journey, you start accepting yourself. You start talking about yourself positively and building a new outlook on your body.”

“For these women, the higher calling is what they’re learning. What these women are saying is: Appreciate yourself right now. Life begins right now, no matter your size and shape, it doesn’t matter,” DiMasi added.

Wonder where we might have gotten the idea that life doesn’t start until you’re 30 pounds thinner? Well—Weight Watchers, among other places. The company has spent decades stressing the importance of getting your way to “after.” Just look at their ads. Let’s start with 1973. Note that, “Through the Weight Watchers Program, so many fat, unhappy people have been born again into thin, happy people.”


Also from 1973:


Part of a full-page ad from 1974:


1986 featured an emphasis on all these folks “changing their lives right now by getting control of their weight and their eating habits with Weight Watchers!” Flip that, and the implication becomes obvious: If your weight is “out of control,” it’s an indictment of your current life.




This accompanying TV commercial expands on the theme. The newer, skinnier clothes wiggle around to demonstrate the excitement, sex appeal, and overall better life you can’t have unless you shed that weight.

1993, promising a “brand new you”:


2007: Not just “more energy” and “healthy weight loss,” but “More confidence. More success.” A whole new life that you can’t have until you shed that 30 pounds with Weight Watchers.


But thanks to the current dynamics of the Internet—where the complaint that would’ve once been just a snarky aside to a shopping buddy becomes a tweet, which with a little traction can quickly blow up into a serious PR problem—suggesting your customers should really do something about their weight problem doesn’t fly anymore. And so the pitch morphs into empowerment marketing. And the logical endpoint of empowerment marketing is Weight Watchers talking about the importance of loving yourself.

Of course, Weight Watchers still wants women to diet. They just want to repackage dieting as a way to take control of your life—but in a Taylor Swift way, not a 1990s Cathy the cartoon way. Take this ad, from February, where women who’ve slimmed down with the company talk about the pain and inconvenience of being overweight. But it opens with the question, “What happens when you stop struggling with your weight and choose to live Beyond the Scale?” One woman talks tearfully about the days when “she believed the scale was a measure of her self-worth,” and the rest of them add that, “It’s not.”

It’s part of their “Beyond the Scale” push, launched with Oprah as spokesperson as an attempt to bolster the business. The slogan is about going beyond the weigh-ins and the calorie counting to encompass healthy eating and exercise, but there’s a distinct empowerment marketing vibe to the enterprise. This introductory video begins with a personal coach announcing that, “You’re more than just a number on the scale. We’re gonna help you discover that.” But is it really that different from the old messages? “There’s this wonderful snowball effect. When people are making better food choices, moving more, and begin to lose weight, they become more confident,” suggests another coach.

This is neither an isolated incident nor limited to Weight Watchers. Think of Aerie proudly and loudly disavowing Photoshop and retouching. Look at Women’s Health loudly announcing a ban on the term “bikini body,” as well as plans to phase out “diet” and “shrink” on their cover lines. Last April, the New York Times wrote about Spanx’s attempts to reshape its brand for a marketplace where body-positivity pitches are the hot ticket. It’s not about disappearing your gut anymore; now it’s about helping you achieve your #squadgoals!

Starting this month, each red box of Spanx promotes a dose of what the company says is feminist inspiration: “Don’t take yourself or the ‘rules’ too seriously,” reads a message card, inserted in a pack of high-waisted shaper shorts and signed by Spanx’s self-made billionaire founder, Sara Blakely. And on the back of the packaging: “Re-shape the way you get dressed, so you can shape the world!”


Neutrogena is even more explicitly campaigning on their previous failures with an ad where spokesperson Kerry Washington personally calls customers who’ve complained about the company’s lack of offerings for darker skin tones and announces that—good news!—they’ve gone diverse. And after Lane Bryant got angry customer pushback on their Twitter Q&A in December, CEO Linda Heasley spun it as an opportunity in a later interview with Business Insider: “The chat — I heard that loud and clear. They want even more fashion from us,” she said, adding that, “All of us need to push ourselves to be better on that front, relative to fashion. She deserves [it]. I read every comment. I take it to heart, and we work to deliver what she wants.”

Of course it’s nice to see companies actually acknowledge their shortcomings and correct course. But there’s still something rich about seeing this particular loop-de-loop, and with more and more companies waking up to the idea that making their customers feel bad is an increasingly unpopular way to market to women, expect to see it more and more often. Fair enough; it’s better than pumping a bunch of outright, unapologetic toxic garbage about the inherent worthlessness of fat bodies into our advertising-rich environment. Just remember that it’s the rare consumer good that actually delivers real power.


Lead image by Bobby Finger.

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