A couple weeks ago my colleague Meghann Lloyd sent me an interesting link to this article in the Globe and Mail, describing a possible new Australian anti-obesity campaign “similar to the displays on cigarette packages that are designed to gross people out“. From the Globe:
The ads would show damaged organs, people drinking body fat, or eating packets of sugar in an effort to shock people into eating more healthfully.
“There is no doubt that obesity is going to overtake smoking as the major killer for Australians,” the [Australian Medical] association’s president Dr. Andrew Pesce told the Herald. “We have been campaigning against smoking for 30 years and are starting to see smoking rates decrease. Obesity is our next target.”
The ads would be modelled after a campaign introduced by New York City health department in 2009. That department has since churned out gross-out ads like this one depicting a man drinking human fat poured out of a can of pop, and this one showing a man downing packets of sugar, with the tagline: “You’d never eat 16 packs of sugar. Why would you drink 16 packs of sugar?”
For those who are curious, here are the above-mentioned ads from the previous campaign in New York, upon which the current Australian campaign is being modeled (email subscribers can view the videos on our website).
Video: Drinking Fat
Video: Drinking Sugar
These campaigns in Australia and NY are not alone. For example, this video (embedded below) is being heavily promoted here in Ontario, and features a child’s face transposed onto the body of an adult with obesity.
And then there is this one from a previous Australian campaign which compares feeding your kid a hamburger with injecting them with heroin. Seriously.
I have a number of concerns with these types of videos. First of all, they tend to use fear-messages, and I’m skeptical about how useful that is as a public-health strategy. I’ve been discussing it with a number of colleagues recently, and the consensus seems to be that fear-messages cause people to tune out more often than not (this is my personal reaction most of the time as well). Of the four videos I’ve posted, I like the “eating sugar” video from New York the most, since it is both funny and informative, and steers clear of the fear-mongering aspect. The final two, however, are plainly meant to terrify parents into action, and I just don’t see that being terribly effective.
Another issue with this type of ad (especially the last two) is that they seem to place all of the blame for obesity on parents/individuals. This is a problem because we know that obesity is not solely the cause of the parent or individual – societal factors like socio-economic status, the built environment (e.g. whether a community is conducive to active transportation, or has access to healthy, nutrient dense foods) and even junk food ads on TV are all likely playing an extremely important role. Keep in mind that even animal populations have seen rapid weight gains in recent years, suggesting the recent increases in childhood obesity are not simply the result of an epidemic of irresponsible parents.
Finally, obese individuals are already discriminated against, and these ads (particularly the Ontario ad) seem to promote the idea that there is something inherently wrong with obese individuals, even if they are otherwise healthy. For example, the Ontario ad implicitly suggests that simply being obese (with or without health complications) is a terrifying prospect. Note the language used in the last line of the add “and maybe I won’t suffer from high blood pressure, or type 2 diabetes, or this [points to body]”. That type of wording seems problematic, to say the least.
This is of course an extremely complicated issue. I’ve spoken with several individuals who are overweight or obese who find it depressing to see headline after headline linking excess weight with all manner of health problems, and I’m sure that some of the posts on this blog have the same effect. I’m not sure that it’s possible to make a public service announcement about obesity without having a similar impact. Although I’m not sure that we really should be making ads about obesity anyway – why not focus solely on the healthy behaviours that we are trying to promote? Adopting a healthy lifestyle can have an important health impact regardless of its impact on body weight, and this is ultimately far more controllable than weight anyway. This isn’t going to cure the obesity epidemic in and of itself, but I do think that educating the public is an important part of any concerted effort to improve the health of our society. In the end, I’m in favour of PSA’s that promote healthy active living, I’m just not sure if intentionally disgusting or vilifying parents is an effective way to do it.