Harsh Childhood Obesity Ads: Effective or Stigmatizing?

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A new, in-your-face ad campaign in Georgia against childhood obesity is sparking controversy among health experts.

The ads feature overweight children along with blunt messages such as, "It's hard to be a little girl if you're not."

While the ads certainly have raised awareness of the problem of childhood obesity, they may not be the best way to tackle the issue, some experts say. Moreover, in an effort to be direct, the ads may be too minimal, neglecting to inform the public about ways to prevent obesity or the health risks associated with the condition.

"Unfortunately, they kind of give a call to action, but they don’t say what is the action," said Nancy Copperman, director of public health initiatives at the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in Great Neck, N.Y. "They don’t necessarily look at any solutions to the issue in the ads."

And by omitting possible solutions, the ads become open to interpretation, Copperman said. Some may see the ads as demeaning to overweight and obese children, she said.

Instead, a more comprehensive campaign that focused on the behaviors that lead to obesity, as well as its health complications, would be a better way to encourage behavior change, Copperman said.

Changing behaviors

The campaign, called Strong4Life, is sponsored by Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. The campaign's creators say they intended it to be a wake-up call for Georgia, which has the second highest rate of childhood obesity in the nation. Children's Healthcare says it decided to run the campaign with a straightforward message after a survey by the organization suggested that 75 percent of parents of obese children did not think their kids were overweight, according to ABC News.

Such "scare tactics" have been used in the past to curb teen smoking and drug abuse. However, unlike these earlier campaigns, Copperman said, the Georgia obesity ads do not include a call to action (such as "Quit smoking" or "Say no to drugs").

The ads would be more effective if they featured positive behaviors, such as families exercising together or children eating healthy food, said Alan Delamater, a professor of pediatrics and psychology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Studies show one of the best ways to get people to change their behavior is to provide examples of the desired behavior, Delamater said.

While the agency's website does include suggestions about how to prevent obesity, it's not clear how many people who see the ads will go to the website, Delamater said.

Others say the campaign needs to convince parents of obesity's health dangers. One way of doing this, said Richard Rende, associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, would be to provide statistics that describe an obese child's risk of developing diabetes and other conditions, something that neither the ads nor the website provide.

"I would like to see more real information given to parents. I think the real information is pretty scary," Rende said.

Complex problem

The ads also place blame on individuals (the obese children's parents), but "it's not just an individual problem," Delamater said. Our culture of junk food, the decline of physical education programs in schools, and food advertisements aimed at children all contribute to childhood obesity, he said.

"It doesn’t just boil down to the family and the choices they're making," Delamater said.

Changes in policy and social norms are needed to tackle childhood obesity.

"It's certainly not a solution that’s going to be achieved overnight," Delamater said.

Children's Healthcare is tracking the effectiveness of its campaign in Atlanta, according to the newspaper the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Until they have results, we won't know if such a blunt approach works or not, Copperman said.

Pass it on: A comprehensive public health campaign aimed at reducing childhood obesity is, unlike the current campaign in Georgia, likely to include mention of ways to prevent obesity and health risks associated with the condition, experts say.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.