Will those ‘quarantine 15’ weight-loss ad campaigns backfire?

Photo of a cardio-sculpt class
Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Gym memberships are skyrocketing. Ads for meal replacement programs to lose the so-called “quarantine 15” are suddenly appearing on TV. And memes poking fun at quarantine weight gain and “maskne” (the portmanteau of “mask” and “acne” used to describe breakouts caused by face coverings) are proliferating online.

Portraits of Rachel Rodgers and Yakov Bart

Left, Rachel Rodgers, associate professor department of applied psychology in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences. Photo by Adam Glanzman. Right, Yakov Bart, associate professor of marketing and Joseph G. Riesman research professor in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Each summer, advertisers take advantage of the rising temperatures to sell anything, and everything related to getting a “beach body.” 

But this summer, a new pressure has emerged: The pressure to lose weight, whiten teeth, clarify skin, and more, after a year spent largely inside. 

The motivation is the same—sell more things—but companies run an especially high risk of backlash if their messaging is seen as out of touch with public sentiment, say Northeastern scholars.

“In a non-pandemic year, we see these advertisements themed to the time of year: Set goals in January, get your beach body in the summer, and so on,” says Rachel Rodgers, an associate professor of applied psychology who studies sociocultural influences on body image. “These same messages have also been following a quarantine timeline—it’s the same underlying message tied up in differently colored packaging.”

The messages—to lose the “quarantine 15” or the “COVID 19”—aim to instill the idea that “appearance is a central part of who you are and what your worth is,” Rodgers says. “The message is: If you’re not pursuing this narrow range of so-called acceptable body shapes, you’re failing.”

The reality, Rodgers says, is that weight gain and weight loss are often much less controllable than companies in the fitness industry would have us believe. Plus, she says, there’s nothing wrong with a body that survived a pandemic, no matter the number on the scale.

There are a few reasons people may feel an extra pressure to look a certain way after the last year, Rodgers says.

For one, many people spent much of the year staring at a thumbnail-sized image of themselves while video conferencing with coworkers, friends, and family quarantining at home.

For another, newly relaxed mask mandates and gathering recommendations means that people are suddenly seeing friends and family in person for the first time in a year—an experience akin to attending a high school reunion, Rodgers says.

“It feels like the stakes are higher, that it’s a social context in which your appearance signals something about you,” she says. “That’s a lot of pressure.”

Companies looking to take advantage of that pressure in order to sell gym memberships, teeth whitening services, and other products must walk a particularly thin line so as not to “traumatize people beyond the trauma of the last year,” says Yakov Bart, associate professor of marketing at Northeastern.

“It’s not surprising that companies want to leverage these conversations that are already out there,” says Bart, who is also Joseph G. Riesman research professor. “If people are posting memes about the ‘quarantine 15,’ it makes it easier for marketers to join that conversation.”

But those marketers should focus on two important parts of their messages, Bart says: the content and the audience.

Businesses need to “acknowledge the trauma that people went through,” he says, and present compassionate messages that are aligned with people’s real goals, rather than shaming people for how they fared in the last year.

The audience is also important, Bart says.

“When you’re talking about weight loss, there’s a fine line between targeting populations that are interested and targeting vulnerable populations, such as young adults and teens,” who are more susceptible to extreme weight loss programs and disordered eating, he says.

Ultimately though, it’s up to each person to decide whether they’re buying what advertisers are selling—and after a year spent trying to survive a deadly pandemic, Rodgers suggests a gentler approach to self-care.

“At its core, marketing is the art of creating a need so that people will consume the thing you’re selling,” she says.

It’s up to us to decide what we really need.

For media inquiries, please contact Jessica Hair at j.hair@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.