Obesity Exploitation?

This post is a continuation of the previous one, “Much Ado about Nothing?” and its predecessor, “Tempest in a Teapot?” For Reuters, Chris Kirkham and Lisa Girion reported on how, while Johnson & Johnson’s legal department was occupied defending itself against lawsuits about ovarian cancer, the customer demographic had changed.

With publicity about the danger of inhaling talc, mothers quit using baby powder for babies, and it got to where more than 90 percent of the product was bought for adult use. Powder is helpful to reduce the discomfort of perspiration in skin folds and fat rolls, especially where the temperature is high.

By the early ’90s, the company recognized two groups of loyal longtime customers: minority women and overweight women. Those constituencies include plenty of crossover, a convenient happenstance for the marketing department which worked diligently to boost sales to them. J&J took it to the next level and, following the example of fast food and soft drink manufacturers, adopted a racially targeted strategy.

Kirkham and Girion wrote,

The “right place” to focus, according to a 2006 internal J&J marketing presentation, was “under developed geographical areas with hot weather, and higher AA population,” the “AA” referring to African-Americans.

Reuters analyzed massive amounts of email correspondence and reams of internal marketing documents, along with advertising campaigns, to reveal the strenuous efforts the company has made to sell powder to overweight African-American and Hispanic women (or, as J&J calls them, “curvy Southern women.”)

The reporters mention,

[The company] advertised in Weight Watchers magazine and offered promotions through the Lane Bryant clothing chain for plus-size women and Curves, a women’s fitness and weight-loss franchise. Marketing plans also included ads to run […] during the Style Network show “Ruby,” a reality TV series that documented an obese Georgia woman on a mission to lose weight.

A 2009 presentation the the J&J top brass stated that “43% of our plan will focus on the top 10 overweight states in the nation.” The advertising department consulted with Weight Watchers about exactly how overweight the models in the powder ads should be. They lined up plenty of radio advertising, with contracts specifying that their ads would be broadcast only on hot days.

As always, the campaign was replete with contests, giveaways, coupons, discounts and samples. In the late 2000’s, J&J spent millions — and almost half of its powder promotion budget — on reaching out specifically to minority and overweight women.

The reporters also note:

Today, women who fall into those categories make up a large number of the 13,000 plaintiffs alleging that J&J’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower […] caused their ovarian cancer or mesothelioma.

Is it unethical to target a segment of the public who are already insecure and defensive about their obesity? Is it wrong to appeal to large, perspiring women on the basis that the product will make them smell less offensive to others? Especially when the safety of the product is being contested in vicious courtroom battles? There have been large damage awards to customers in addition to the ones we have mentioned, and the corporation is currently appealing all of them.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “As worries about Baby Powder’s safety mounted, J&J focused its pitches on minority, overweight women,” Reuters.com, 04/09/19
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One Response

  1. Obese kids are an easy target in the classroom and are often teased and bullied, due to this the entire life they suffer from health low self-esteem, depression, and even gain more weight. The researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) claim that the stress of being teased might have stimulated the release of a stress hormone called cortisol, which could increase weight.

    Source – https://www.myhealthyclick.com/nih-study-says-being-teased-about-weight-is-associated-with-more-weight-gain-in-children/

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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