The obesity epidemic can be relied on to occasionally add a useful new word to the language. We’ve got fatsploitation, globesity — and now, leanwashing. Like many other made-up words, this one harks back to a previously coined term, greenwashing — which is corporate propaganda designed to convince us that their product and/or process will not destroy our bodies and/or the planet.
That word developed from whitewashing, which enjoyed many decades of ascendancy as the most appropriate metaphor for covering up political shenanigans which must not be seen by the public. It even goes back to Biblical times, and a famous quotation about a tomb with a fresh coat of paint. Here’s the verse, Matthew 23:27:
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.
Woe indeed, as in, “Whoa!” That’s a heavy indictment. Now, we have a firm grasp of all that leanwashing implies, and a general outline. The details are filled in by a new website, appropriately called Leanwashing Index. Its mission is to help keep advertising honest. Its purpose is to shine a light on health claims and discover whether they might be exaggerated, misleading, or even downright false.
Not surprisingly, the questionable claims usually have something to do with — you guessed it — obesity. For instance:
One example is the ‘low-calorie’ labels and marketing claims for popular 100-calorie packs of cookies or chips. Implied (and sometimes directly stated) in the advertising for these smaller packages of snacks is that they are now healthier to consume — but the package contains the same low-nutritional-value food. When people are convinced to eat one of these packs instead of, say, 100 calories worth of carrots, it’s not really a healthy snack.
Leanwashing Index has no problem with the honest efforts of the food industry to introduce healthier options, and it has nothing against products that motivate people to exercise or do any other kind of beneficial activity. The problem here is when the public receives misinformation or disinformation. The industry insists on its ability and right to police itself, but sometimes it gives off a vibe of not quite putting its best efforts into that aspect of corporate behavior.
Here’s what’s wrong with leanwashing:
It too often leads consumers to eat foods and engage in behaviors that are marketed as healthy, instead of foods and behaviors that are actually healthy.
Advertisements that appeal to children are particularly offensive. Did you ever have the feeling that some particular TV commercial or cereal box was creepy, but couldn’t quite put your finger on the reason? Leanwashing Index provides a very comprehensive list of questions to help figure out exactly what’s wrong with corporate propaganda that targets kids, with 15 specific questions, of which these are samples:
Does it seem the words are trying to make one believe the product is good for them when it really isn’t?
Do you think it uses non-verbal cues such as graphics, photographs, animated characters, sponsorships, or celebrity endorsements in a way that’s designed to make children and/or their parents think the product/company is more healthy than it really is?
Does it seek to reach children where they are especially vulnerable such as in schools, online, social media, parks, athletic fields, or check-out lines?
Your responses and feedback are welcome!