The Department of Stereotypes

A multibillion-dollar company’s primary marketing message is a hurtful stereotype aimed at people like me. The company is Planet Fitness. The stereotype is aimed mostly at very muscular men. Planet Fitness calls me a “Lunk.”
One of VCreek’s methodologies is to “use the benign to study and discuss the pernicious because the mechanisms of action are often the same.”

Planet Fitness labeling muscular men and fit women as “Lunks” is benign, with only trivial impact on the targets—which makes it perfect to explore how stereotypes function, are transmitted and sustained in modern culture.

In the scholarly research on stereotypes, there are several broad schools of thought ranging from stereotypes being probability judgements about an individual, to exaggerated or “overgeneralized attributes associated with the members of a social group”1 to negative evaluations and prejudices against members of a group. The stereotype judgements and assessments we make about others happen fast. “People judge each other within a fraction of a second,” writes Princeton’s Susan Fiske. These automatic snap stereotype judgements “anchor subsequent thinking” and are difficult to undo.2

Skim through a few of Planet Fitness’ humorous and well produced television ads then ask—how frequently do these scenarios really happen? And, what makes them funny?

In research on stereotypes, especially the benign ones, some argue that many stereotypes are based on statistical probability. This is often called, the Bayesian Brain. Writing in the journal Nature, the University of Warwick’s Perry Hinton says “The Bayesian brain develops its statistical probabilities from experience in life and learnt about through the media.” 1 The Bayesian Brain hypothesis prompts several questions for our discussion. How often do people visually see very muscular men and fit women in real life? How often in a gym setting? How often in other settings? How many media representations are observed throughout their life? How often do people interact with muscular or fit people? How many do they actually know? How often is the Lunk stereotype confirmed or contradicted? How often do the scenarios depicted in Planet Fitness’ TV ads really happen?

Statistically, very muscular men and very fit women are likely to be rare. According to the CDC, 42% of Americans are obese.2 Seventy-three percent of Americans are either overweight or obese and only 23% exercise 150 minutes a week.
The math would indicate there not very many fit people and the only place to see them with any relevant frequency is in a gym. And even in most gyms, very muscular men and very fit women are a minority--except in gyms where serious enthusiasts congregate like Pure Muscle and Fitness in Toronto, Canada; Armbrust Pro Gym, Denver; Die Hard Gym, Phoenix; etc.

Many, if not most, stereotypes are based on similarly limited real-life information. Think of the benign stereotypes about accountants, computer programmers, engineers, plumbers, video gamers, etc. How often are the stereotypes confirmed or contradicted in real life?

According the Bayesian Brain hypothesis, each confirmation or contradiction to the stereotype would update the rapid—and very generalized—statistical stereotype calculation. Either the stereotypes are accurate enough, or there are other mechanisms of action that perpetuate them. Generalized benign stereotypes could persist and resist Bayesian updating because the consequences for being wrong are minimal. We can all think of instances where the generalized stereotype of an accountant was contradicted, but how often did the error have material consequences like losing money or social consequences like serious embarrassment? Absent the incentive to get it right the next time, the updating may not occur. And in some circumstances, people don’t learn anything from mistakes because our egos get in the way.

Across a series of experiments University of Chicago, Booth School of Business professors Lauren Eskreis-Winkler and Ayelet Fishbach found that people did not learn from failure—even when learning was incentivized.3 One of the experiments quizzed inbound telephone customer services representatives about the telephone customer service sector. On the initial quiz, the average score was 56% correct. One group was given feed-back confirming their correct answers. Another group was given feed-back correcting their wrong answers. When quizzed again, the group of getting feed-back on their correct answers scored 62%. The group with feed-back on their wrong answers only score 48% on the second quiz.

The professors concluded, “Our key result is that people find failure feedback ego threatening, which leads them to tune out and miss the information the feedback offers.”

They also explain that these minor errors are different from large or physically or psychologically painful errors. “It is possible that for large failures, the attentional pull of the negative experience overrides the motivation to tune out. Many failures are small…yet they accumulate a significant amount of information that people might fail to learn from.”

The errors caused by benign stereotypes are often small and may not warrant updating by the Bayesian Brain. The accumulated effects of those errors though could have major consequences for businesses and professionals, especially in sales and marketing.
Another mechanism could be a type of confirmation by omission. Even just recalling a memory or a concept strengthens the memory or concept. A person could see a very muscular man in the gym training very hard with heavy weights. The Lunk stereotype surfaces. And because observing person never gets any information beyond the visual cue, the stereotype is confirmed and strengthened by omission of contradicting data.

The derogatory nature of the Lunk stereotype--depicting Lunks as vain, shallow and one-dimensional-- in some of Planet Fitness’ TV ads, is possibly the result of another mechanism that perpetuates some stereotypes. In the gym domain, the Lunk is successful at what many people consider relevant to the gym domain--building muscle, losing fat or improving their physical appearance or physical capabilities. This can create a strong reaction from some people who are less successful in the gym domain.

University of Kentucky psychologist Richard H. Smith has studied the conditions that create envy and how people treat those they envy.6 The primary conditions for envy are similarity, relevance, inability and unfairness.
Observer sees themselves as somewhat similar to the target.
The domain is relevant to the observer’s identity or goals.
The observer does not think they will be able to reach the target’s level of success
The observer thinks the target has an unfair advantage.

When these elements combine, the emotional result in the observer can be strong. As Harvard Business School’s Karen Huang writes in a working paper on envy in business environments, “When individuals display their successes, the people around them often feel malicious envy, a destructive interpersonal emotion aimed at harming the envied individual.”5 Smith says, “Perhaps the most simple way to channel such defensive ill-will and, at the same time, to repair the damage done to one's self-estimation is to find ways to derogate the envied person.” Some people may take this derogation to the extreme and lash out, i.e. the abusive social media hater. More common would be the observer making a comparison to the target on another dimension.
“It may be difficult to deny an ability difference, to convince oneself that a self-relevant domain is unimportant, or to do much to close this difference,” Smith explains. “But it may be quick and easy to construe the envied person as morally flawed.” Or flawed in another way. The Lunk is dumb, shallow, vain, one-dimensional, and has nothing going for them other their physique.

I have engaged in this behaviour before. We all have. And we all will again. A Lunk is dumb because others need to feel better about themselves in an unrelated comparison dimension. What bears further study is not the derogation itself, but how the derogation is so universally known and used as part of the stereotype.

Professor Hinton, quoted previously, gives a direction of investigation “The Bayesian brain develops its statistical probabilities from experience in life and learnt about through the media.” 1

The average American watches 2 hours and 48 minutes of television a day7 and there is a large body of content analysis detailing the various stereotypes contained in that 168 minutes.8

Writing about television sitcoms and dramas, the late Travis Linn, former Dean of the University Nevada Reno, Reynolds School of Journalism, said, “Stereotypical views of others are part of our shared culture. We participate in these views even when we consciously reject them. It is this reality upon which the writers of sitcoms rely.”9 For the stereotypes in a sitcom to be funny “the humor depends partly on the recognition that stereotypes are stereotypes, that they are not universal truths…the jokes wouldn’t be understandable if we didn’t share at least the knowledge of the stereotype. Our reaction would be ‘what’s that about?’” Planet Fitness’ Lunk ads would not be amusing or effective if people didn’t know the stereotype.

Television characters need to fit easily recognizable types and those types must be believable for the dramatic narrative to have impact. Linn writes that for television dramas “Stereotypes are used as a way of gaining credibility. A stereotype is, after all, an artifact of common belief.”

As an example, Linn discusses the stereotypes of gang members in television crime dramas. “Most people believe that most gang members are Latino or African American because law enforcement officers tell us that is the case, and the evening news confirms it,” Linn writes. “Thus, the use of this stereotype in a dramatic program is one that appears to fit reality, and, because it appears to fit reality, the program gains the confidence of the viewer in that regard.” Linn explains that the use of a stereotype in a television show or commercial reinforces the common belief around the stereotype through repeated exposure.

One-hundred and sixty-eight minutes a day of stereotypes--for decades--is a massive amount of stereotype programming.

Thinking back to the Bayesian Brain, are people more likely to know the Lunk stereotype through repeated personal experience, or repeated exposure through media? The actual number of very muscular men and very fit women is incredibly small. It is likely that there are more portrayals of the type in the media than people ever encounter in reality.

The Department of Stereotypes is not a governmental agency or a nefarious plot— if anything it is in the writers’ rooms of television sitcoms and dramas; it is advertising agencies and newsrooms; generating thousands of hours of programming each year that rely on stereotypes, reinforce stereotypes and distort the Bayesian Brain.

The benign stereotypes about accountants, computer programmers, engineers, plumbers, video gamers and Lunks are reinforced weekly, if not daily on television and other media. Pernicious stereotypes are reinforced the same way.


  2. Social Cognition, 4th Edition pg 35
  9. Images That Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media, chapter 3 “Media Methods That Lead to Stereotypes”