What brands can learn from Weight Watchers' mishap

There's a difference between offering a solution to a problem and trying to profit off someone's negative self-image, writes the global chief creative officer of Publicis Health.

Weight Watchers Australia recently released—and quickly retracted—a campaign called "See Yourself in a New Light," centered around a group of underwear-clad women frankly discussing how embarrassed they feel about their bodies in the "bedroom." While the outward message was apparently meant to be one of empowerment, outrage ensued online as women and the media interpreted it to mean that one's sex life is negatively correlated to their weight.

The most disarming thing about these ads is that they are based on a very real truth, which is then twisted in the worst kind of emotional manipulation. Of course some women are self-conscious about their bodies—they grew up in a world that conditioned them to believe that being thin is the only way to be attractive (and of course, that being attractive should be one of their highest priorities). But instead of moving the conversation in a different direction, ads like this only work to cement age-old stereotypes.

While many women's magazines and websites have started to focus on messages of inclusiveness and body positivity, the women's wellness and beauty marketing space still lags behind. Too often, messages of empowerment and acceptance are used in a way that ends up sending exactly the opposite message. Outwardly they scream, "Love yourself," but the takeaway is, "Love yourself ... but only once you're skinnier and younger looking than you are right now."

Female-centric brands like Weight Watchers are in an awkward position in this cultural moment. Instant feedback online requires marketers to be very careful about how they speak to a population of women who have grown tired of hearing they don't look the way they are supposed to. So what can brands do to stop making the same mistakes and start really connecting with women around wellness? Here are some pointers.

Understand the new definition of wellness. Wellness is much more of a feeling—both emotional and physical—than it is a look. So let's move on from the idea that there is only one "good" body type (it looks something like Gigi Hadid) and that being "healthy" is synonymous with losing weight. Instead of pushing one visual ideal of wellness, let's start talking about the many ways there are to be healthy and active. By moving away from thinness and pushing the joys of a healthy lifestyle, brands can redefine the conversation in a positive, realistic way that women of all body types can relate to.

Understand the power of emotion. Health, wellness and the way women perceive themselves are emotionally charged, deeply personal issues. That makes this both a very rich space to connect with consumers, and also a very risky one. The reason why campaigns like Weight Watcher's "See Yourself in a Different Light" campaign fail is because they presume that women are coming from a place of unhappiness and shame—and that their products are in the position to change that. There's a difference between offering a worthwhile solution to a problem, and working to profit off person's negative feelings about themselves. Brands instead should work to connect with women by focusing on the good feelings that come with healthy habits—the pride, energy and accomplishment of making positive changes.

Listen. Teach. And listen some more. Brands marketing to women in the wellness space need to think past advertising, into deep engagement through teaching. This should only occur after they have spent time actually listening to women's thoughts and feelings first—especially since women don't want to be preached to as one monolithic group, they want their individual needs to be heard. According to Pew Internet Research, 75% of internet users report that they've looked online for health information in the past year. There is a massive opportunity for brands to cut through the clutter and passing fads women are confronted with online each day, and provide them with practical, trusted educational content. Once the right information is out there, brands should take the time to observe, receive feedback and truly pay attention to what these women have to say, allowing them to adjust and enhance their brand's messages in the future.

Ultimately, by pointing out negative stereotypes, Weight Watchers is further perpetuating poor self-esteem. And as a woman, I can't imagine any situation in which this ad would encourage me to walk into a weight loss session and not feel shamed or judged. The point being, certain brands must stop feeding into women's insecurities. They're demeaning our bodies, and their brands.

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