Leanwashing 101

How television benefits your children

This is not the first time Childhood Obesity News has talked about leanwashing, and for a lovely example of its cultural antecedents, the picture on this page will do just fine. Dating from 1950, the newspaper ad proclaims:

Motorola, leader in television, shows how TV can mean better behavior at home and better marks in school!

See how they are? In 1950, not even 20% of American homes even had television yet — that’s fewer than one in five — yet the Motorola company’s advertising agency felt perfectly comfortable about promising superior academic achievement and behavioral improvement. Both claims, as we know, have been hotly contested during the succeeding decades, just as the claims of advertisers on the payroll of the food industry are disputed today.

The folks at the Leanwashing Index got together with several experts in journalism, communication, and medicine to create the list of criteria that combine to make a kind of lens through which to view the media. Any consumer is encouraged to send in examples of ads to the website and to judge those ads. This is participatory journalism!

The directions say:

When you rate an ad with the Leanwashing Index, it will generate a score based on your response to the following statements. Your score will be included in the ad’s overall score, and your comments will be added to the tally. Scoring is similar to golf: high scores are undesirable (for the advertiser).

These are only the main headings, so please visit their page for the complete list, and have a ton of fun analyzing some of the masterpieces of deceit that are beamed into the ears and eyeballs of children. These questions apply to any type of commercial, electronic, print or whatever, that is aimed primarily at the young. Look at whether the ad, packaging, or promotion:

1. Misleads with words.
2. Misleads with visuals, characters, endorsements, special offers, sponsorships, or other manipulative imagery.
3. Makes a health claim that is vague or can’t be proven.
4. Exaggerates how healthy the product/company actually is.
5. Leaves out or masks important information, making the health claim sound better than it is.
6. Unfairly targets children.

Dr. Pretlow suggests that another criterion might be added: Does the ad, packaging, or promotion use children’s health charities to advertise unhealthy food? Children are naturally altruistic, and once they understand the basic premise that it’s supposed to help sick kids if they eat this stuff, they’re on board.

This commercial is a prime example: “Every time you get a Happy Meal, or a Mighty Kids Meal, some of the money goes to Ronald McDonald charities to help lots of kids and families.” Sold!

Here’s one from Dairy Queen, in which miracles of healing happen right before our eyes. A cleft palate morphs into a lovely baby smile, a birthmark disappears, and leg braces fall away, no longer needed. It’s a beautiful thought, but a thought that doesn’t need to be implanted into the minds of children to inspire them to nag their parents to buy milkshakes. Save it for selling broccoli.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “What is Leanwashing?,” Leanwashing Index
Image by mem45414, used under its Creative Commons license.


  1. Thank you for the post about the Leanwashing Index. We really like Dr. Pretlow’s suggestion to include in the criteria using children’s health charities to promote unhealthy products. The advisers actually talked about what a problem that is. Thanks again.

    • Robert A. Pretlow, MD says:

      Your leanwashing.com site is acomplishing a great service. I will post the two clips I mentioned in the Childhood Obesity Action Network listserv. Although perhaps not in the leanwashing.com realm, a further abuse area by advertisers is using child actors to endorse unhealthy products: Pizza Hut commercial

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Childhood Obesity News | OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say | Dr. Robert A. Pretlow
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