Product Offerings Are Pretty Slim for Obese Consumers

As Americans Grow Larger, Most Marketers Outside Clothing Are Content to Ignore the Demographic

By Published on .

CHICAGO ( -- Wendy Wimmer describes a recent trip to the plus-size section of Target as entering the "fat-girl ghetto." She passed racks of "cute as a button" Liz Lange maternity wear with envy. Finally she found a lackluster selection of clothes that fit her frame, tucked in the far corner of the store near the big-box Siberia known as layaway. "Someone is pregnant for nine months, but people are generally fat for their entire lives," said Ms. Wimmer, who has contributed to the Big Fat Deal blog since 2005 under the screen name "Weetabix."

Obesity chart

GOING UP Obesity trends among U.S. adults
It's the one growing demographic marketers seem intent on largely ignoring: the overweight.

In 1996 there wasn't a single state in the U.S. where the adult obesity rate was greater than 20%. A mere 14 years later, 49 states have crossed that line, leaving Colorado as the most-svelte state in the union. Some blame this solely on a 1998 redefinition of "overweight" by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the figures were already increasing.

Consider: 33.9% of adults are obese and 68.3% are overweight. Obesity, defined by the CDC as a body-mass index greater than 30, hits women (35.5%) and blacks (44.1%) harder. No demographic is spared, and the numbers are trending worse and worse. The stats for children are especially appalling. Some 10.4% of kids ages 2 to 5 are obese. Nearly one in five of those aged 12 to 19 are, and the figures have doubled and tripled, respectively, in the last 30 years.

Despite a heavier America, the selection of products for them remains thin. "I can go out and see women my size and know exactly where they bought everything they're wearing," said Lesley Kinzel, 33, who has run a blog at since 2007 and was part of the Fatshionista LiveJournal community -- a hub of the "fatosphere," with 8,000 active members.

Yet as Americans are getting heavier and heavier, few marketers seem to be taking notice. While it's not a problem that impacts all sectors -- overweight consumers don't need a different kind of battery or toothpaste -- more spacious restaurant booths, wider desk chairs and more leg- and shoulder-room on airplanes could present an opportunity for marketers to adapt to a changing consumer.

Taking larger consumers into account when planning a retail environment would have ancillary benefits as well. "Until we as a nation go on a diet, being conscious of our size is simply good business," said Paco Underhill, president-CEO of retail consultancy Envirosell.

But there are reasons they don't. "It seems like this would be more of a product development than a marketing issue," said Ryndee Carney, manager of dealer and marketing communications at General Motors. And it could for some backfire -- McDonald's would certainly never be able to produce an ad saying, "we made our booths wider so you can fit in them after eating too many of our products." Even so, subtle changes would still be noticed by the consumer even if they're not advertised overtly.

Jet Blue currently has a video testimonial on its site featuring a customer named Kervin who espouses the comfort of the middle seat he barely fits in. Jet Blue said in a statement that "we included Kervin because he was, first and foremost, a real customer who could talk about the experience on JetBlue -- just as we did with all the people in experience videos -- and his size did not have anything to do with it either way."

It's subtle, but the online-only spot produced by Firstborn Multimedia is a stark contrast to rival Southwest and its policy of charging fliers for two seats if they can't fit within the arm rests. That danger of that policy was demonstrated well when the airline got in a very public Twitter dispute with director Kevin Smith, who reportedly got booted from a flight even though he claimed the armrests went down fine.

Milan might have banned the starving-urchin look, but you still don't see obese people in TV shows unless they're about fat people, like "Biggest Loser" or "Huge," nor do you see many in commercials.

It seems like a valid theory: Appeal to plus-size consumers with plus-size models in order to get them to feel better about themselves and associate that positive feeling with your brand. So if overweight Americans are now the overwhelming majority, why aren't more brands and the media responding?

"The tricky thing is: How do we push that line and remain aspirational and respectful of the beauty industry and what that represents?" said Lauren Crampsie, chief marketing officer of Ogilvy and Mather North America, whose work on Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign famously showcased full-figured models. "It's a scary time. People don't want to piss off the industry, and the industry is based on size-two models."

TORRID: The plus-size retailer has been spending online, in PR and on events.
TORRID: The plus-size retailer has been spending online, in PR and on events.
Also, it might not work. Naomi Mandel, an associate processor at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business, conducted a study for a paper published in the Journal of Consumer Marketing earlier this year. Her research looked at the impact of models of varying weights on the self-esteem of overweight women. "There isn't any size model that improves the self-esteem for overweight consumers," she said. They reacted most positively to ads with no models in them. Additionally, in a previous study, Ms. Mandel found that exposure to ads with slightly plus-size models tend to lower the self-esteem of normal-weight women, who see the similarities to what they view as flaws with their own bodies.

It also isn't an issue that affects all brands to the same extent. As Peggy Howell, a spokeswoman for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, put it, "Fat people don't need a whole lot more than skinny people." The major needs are clothing that fits, furniture that is comfortable and can support weight, and products and services related to travel such as wide airplane seats and seat-belt extenders for both planes and cars.

Those are products that drive a large portion of consumer spending. Americans spent more than $260 billion on clothing and furniture in 2008, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics figures.

Many marketers don't see overweight people as an audience to reach, even if their products could easily be targeted to the demographic. Ryndee Carney, manager of dealer and marketing communications at General Motors, said, "There is no strategy about how we market to obese people. I can assure you no one is taking obesity into account when we create marketing plans."

For those who are actively targeting this demographic, the consumer isn't always easy to reach. Traditional means of advertising, like print magazines, might not be the best venue. "I'm not sure my girl is there," said Chris Daniel, president of teen retailer Hot Topic's plus-size off-shoot Torrid. Mr. Daniel works with Coburn Communications for Torrid's public-relations work and handles the rest of its advertising in-house. He has been diverting advertising dollars to affiliate and search-engine marketing, events, regional advertising and public-relations efforts. "The number of impressions you have to make in order to reach someone -- it's kind of daunting," he said of the vast array of media messages that bombard his tween and millennial target .

The rewards can be great. Lane Bryant is the leading plus-size retailer for women with nearly 800 stores. Its parent company, Charming Shoppes, had more than $2 billion in sales last year for its three plus-size brands. Torrid's revenue for 2009 was just over $150 million, with almost 20% of that coming from online sales.

As far as men go, it's possible that they are shopping plus-size and just don't know it. Esquire recently posted a story on its site that a "36-inch" pair of pants at a number of major retailers actually ranged in size from 37 inches at H&M to an extra-generous 41 inches at Old Navy. While a spokesperson for Old Navy's parent, Gap Inc., denied that was true, the prevalence of "vanity sizing," as this practice is called, matches pretty well with this author's shopping experience in recent years.

Most Popular
In this article: