Weight Watchers - Up To Their Old Tricks
In 2018, Weight Watchers changed its name to “WW” added the tagline “wellness that works” and started using language about “health” and “wellness” and “beyond the scale.” Per a Fast Company article this happened because “In this new era of body image acceptance and feel-good wellness communities, Weight Watchers learned that the term “diet” was rife with negative connotations.”
Another way to put this is that weight-neutral health and fat acceptance advocates had made tremendous headway in pointing out that, even according to Weight Watchers’ own research, their program almost never creates significant long-term weight loss. Thus, this seemed to be a fairly transparent attempt to co-opt the work of weight-neutral advocates and fat acceptance activists in order to keep selling a program that almost never works.
The thing that they seem to have going for them is an uncanny ability to convince their clients (and everyone else) to credit Weight Watchers for short-term weight loss (the first part of the biological response to restriction) and then get their clients (and everyone else) to blame themselves for the weight regain that almost everyone experiences (the second part of the biological response to restriction.) In this way, they convince people to keep coming back for multiple rounds, which forms the nucleus of their repeat business model.
According to an article by Traci Mann called “Oprah’s Investment in Weight Watchers Was Smart Because the Program Doesn’t Work”:
“[Weight Watchers] brags about this to its shareholders. According to Weight Watchers’ business plan from 2001 (which I viewed in hard-copy form at a library), its members have “demonstrated a consistent pattern of repeat enrollment over a number of years,” signing up for an average of four separate program cycles. And in an interview for the documentary The Men Who Made Us Thin, former CFO Richard Samber explained that the reason the business was successful was because the majority of customers regained the weight they lost, or as he put it: “That’s where your business comes from.”
Their rebrand to wellness builds on this scam. Which brings us to the postcard I received in the mail recently.
Image Description: A postcard with a gray background
Text: At the top left is the WW logo next to the words WeightWatchers
If you want to lose weight, we’re ready for you
Get your special offer at [redacted]
· Proven nutritional science
· A supportive community
· Build healthy habits for life
· Weight loss that lasts
A smiling woman in a blue long-sleeve crop top and beige drawstring pants carrying a canvas bag with a scarf in her hair smiles with an open mouth. Beside her it says “New Member Naomi M -68 lb*” The * says “People following the WW program can expect to lose 1 to 2 pounds per week.
Here we see their old and new tricks on display:
Showing someone with a relatively large amount of weight loss with an asterisk that goes to a disclaimer.
The disclaimer is completely unclear. It makes it sounds like the average Weight Watchers participant will have the same results as the model within 34-68 weeks, but the research absolutely does NOT support that
They claim “weight loss that lasts” even though their own research (and a century of data) say that it is a straight-up lie
They market publicly about “health” and “wellness” to avoid the negative connotations of diets, but when it comes time to really sell, they bring out the weight loss talk:
It says “Weight Watchers” right there at the top (even though they “officially changed their name” to WW)
The model has their weight loss listed, but absolutely no information about their health
“If you want to lose weight” is at the top, in the largest font
“Build healthy habits for life” only rates as a small font third bullet
Weight Watchers, or WW, whatever they call themselves, they are not about health. They’ve never been about health, because they’ve been very clear that their profit model is built on weight cycling which is independently linked to harm. If they actually cared about people’s health, they would have either moved to a weight-neutral model or, preferably (at least to me,) just shut the whole mess down.
I’d bet all the money in my pockets that this whole switch to marketing about “health” is about finding a way to co-opt the work of weight-neutral advocates and fat liberation activists, gloss over Weight Watchers’ utter failure at creating long-term weight loss, and trying to get people to stay on their program even though they are gaining the weight back, all while continuing to convince their customers to blame themselves for having the outcome that about 95% of people have.
Essentially, Weight Watchers is a highly profitable scam. The fact that they have wheedled their way into corporate wellness programs and health insurance is proof of the utter failure of corporate wellness programs and insurance companies to properly vet Weight Watchers and/or proof that they are actively putting profits above people. Either way, it’s inexcusable. As for Weight Watchers, the only thing most of the clients lose is their money.
In part two of this two-part series, we’ll do a deep dive into the research that Weight Watchers claims shows their long-term efficacy.
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For a full bank of research, check out https://haeshealthsheets.com/resources/
*Note on language: I use “fat” as a neutral descriptor as used by the fat activist community, I use “ob*se” and “overw*ight” to acknowledge that these are terms that were created to medicalize and pathologize fat bodies, with roots in racism and specifically anti-Blackness. Please read Sabrina Strings: Fearing the Black Body – the Racial Origins of Fat Phobia and Da’Shaun Harrison: Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness for more on this.