Welcome to Fat China...A Literally Expanding Market

Researchers Paul French and Matthew Crabbe Examine the Rise of Obesity in China

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SHANGHAI ( -- Urban China is fat and getting In 1982, just 7% of Chinese were overweight. A decade later, that figure grew to 15%, with an extra 30 million Chinese labeled technically obese. Skip another decade to 2002, and 23% of urban China was overweight. That's 200 million people, of whom 7% (or 60 million) are considered obese.

Paul French
Paul French
Today, 100 to 120 million Chinese are obese and about half of them are kids. The effects of this obesity crisis in China will be legion, including significantly increased levels of disease, including diabetes. China's healthcare system faces a time bomb of 100 million adults with diabetes within a couple of years. The additional costs will be massive.

How did this happen? It's called a "wealth deficit." Obesity in China happened so fast because massive economic and social change has been compressed into such a short period of time. That change has affected everything. People have more money to spend and so food shortages are a thing of the past--famine to gluttony in two generations--a massive achievement. But of course there is a downside, obesity.

The problem is starting in childhood. China's Ministry of Education reports that almost 16% of urban kids and young adults aged between the ages of 7 and 22 are considered clinically obese and the number increases by 8% annually.

Chinese cherish chubby babies
Obesity starts young in China through a combination of factors--rising incomes generally allowing for more spending, the "six-pocket syndrome" of the one-child policy, which means each "little emperor" has two parents and four grandparents lavishing sodas, ice creams and burgers on their little cherub and a traditional concept of fat in early childhood indicating health and future prosperity.

The cover image of this book is an example of the traditional Chinese New Year (nianhua) posters that invariably feature plump babies or well-fed children. They are still published every lunar new year in China and distributed around the country.

Most worrying perhaps, is the fact that childhood obesity is not usually a temporary state; overweight children invariably become overweight adults. The advertising industry may want to pause for thought here. Fat and overweight children regularly appear in advertising in China to play to the belief in adolescent plumpness indicating prosperity.

When they hit their teenage years, however, young Chinese (particularly girls) are bombarded with images of size-zero and skinny-skinny models. Converting a plump adolescent into a size-zero late teen is no easy task and for many young people, especially women, this mixed message of body shape is causing problems.

Western food is readily available
More and more urban Chinese are bai ling, white-collar workers who, like many well-off westerners, spend their days commuting to and from work, sitting at a desk or watching television. Sedentary lives are becoming the norm – urban Chinese are now all those stupid marketing terms we've had to suffer in the West for ages. They are "couch potatoes" who have adopted convenience lifestyles.

The widespread introduction of western-style fast foods, sugary drinks, fat-laden ready meals, gloopy sauces and other consumable temptations--all very effectively advertised to them--are adding to the collective Chinese waistline. The stressed-out masses have their comfort food, available 24-hours a day, seven days a week, within easy proximity and all at prices that have remained very low, relative to rapidly rising wages.

The growth of China's car market has also played a role, by all but banishing the previously ubiquitous bicycle from the streets of many Chinese cities, robbing people of the option to make their way into work, or elsewhere, on a bike. Add to this little time for exercise, greater consumption of alcoholic drinks and a wealth of (heavily advertised) media diversions, and it's easy to see how urban China got so fat, so fast and is now getting so sick, so quick.

Matthew Crabbe
Matthew Crabbe
While we can't blame the advertising industry for urban China's appalling driving standards, the relationship between advertising and obesity is a long and documented one internationally, though to date, the discussion of the link between the advertising of fat-inducing foods and drinks and obesity has been muted in China.

This lack of discussion has not been due to any particular government clampdown or censorship, but rather to the rapid growth in advertising and fast-changing lifestyles that have meant that no time has yet been found for such discussions. Yet they will have to happen soon.

Few restrictions on food ads
To date, few serious restrictions have been placed on food advertisers in China regarding advertising HFSS (high in fat, salt and sugar) products or advertising directly at children. However, the Chinese press has reported initiatives such as the 2006 International Congress on Obesity in Sydney, where the International Association for the Study of Obesity called for a global statutory ban on the advertising of non-nutritious and junk food to children in order to tackle the global epidemic of obesity.

Chinese academics and healthcare professionals have also noted that a host of western countries now limit ads directed at children. In some places, this has already led some purveyors of HFSS foods, such as McDonald's Corp. and Kraft Foods, to announce they will promote more healthy foods and curb advertising to children. Though in China, such moves by the likes of McDonald's have come at the same time as setting up drive-thru restaurants, heavily targeting kids and young mothers and all aimed at selling beef, beef and more beef.

Over the last 20 years, advertising agencies in China have made good money from food manufacturers and retailers, beer and fizzy drink brands, and the fast-food giants. They will continue to do so. But now they will also start to make money from those offering dubious cures for obesity, such as Weight Watchers which, bizarrely, operates in China through a joint venture with Danone Group, producers of biscuits and cakes, as well as fat farms, slimming pills, diet plans, exercise equipment, cosmetic surgery and "magic bullet" pharmaceuticals. The advertisers persuaded many Chinese to get fat; now they'll convince them they know how to slim them back down again.

Growing concern over an obesity epidemic in China will be good news for the advertising industry. But where will the ethical lines be drawn? Already we've seen supposed miracle cures, drugs and diets offered up in advertising as 'cures' on Chinese TV, even though any sensible person knows that cures to obesity outside diet and exercise don't exist. In the meantime, the reality is that China is about to get fatter before it gets thinner.

Matthew Crabbe and Paul French are the founders of Access Asia, an independent provider of market intelligence about Greater China. This summer, Anthem Press published their latest book, "Fat China: How Expanding Waistlines Are Changing A Nation." Mr. Crabbe will speak about the book at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Hong Kong on September 22, 2010.

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