Last week we wrote about health advocates in Georgia struggling with ways to stem the nation’s second-highest statewide childhood obesity rate, and the controversial ad campaign that has resulted. Nearly 40% of children in Georgia are either overweight or obese, and there’s no end in sight for an epidemic that’s taking its toll on the health of the Peach State. Obesity increases the risk of developing a wide range of illnesses including hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer, and arthritis.
Studies have also illustrated the psychological toll of the epidemic: with obesity often comes maladies such as depression and eating disorders. We should not forget that these psychological tolls are driven in part by the bullying and teasing that overweight and obese kids face from their peers.
The economies of Georgia and the nation are suffering from the epidemic’s economic impact as well. If current trends hold, the costs of treating obesity-related disorders will grow first to approximately $28 billion per year by 2020 and then to $66 billion per year in 2030. Meanwhile, “the current annual cost of obesity in Georgia is estimated at $2.4 billion, which includes direct health care costs and lost productivity from disease, disability, and death.”
So, Georgia is desperate for a game changer.
Armed with data showing that 75% of parents with overweight or obese children are unaware of the physical and psychological risks associated with obesity, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta launched its Strong4Life campaign earlier this month. I spoke last week with Tim Whitehead, vice president of marketing and communications at Children’s Healthcare, who is “thrilled with the firestorm” that the ads have generated both in Atlanta and nationally. The campaign itself, Whitehead said, grew out of “frustration with the pace of change and lack of attention the issue was getting.”
The ads, which call on Georgians to “stop sugarcoating” the obesity epidemic, have been criticized by the Obesity Action Coalition and others, as reported in the New York Times, for fueling “the fires that represent the nonstop onslaught of teasing and bullying that America’s children, affected by childhood obesity, face daily.”
Children’s Healthcare is standing by its campaign, and arguing that the tough love approach tested well in its pilot stage. “The kids in a very consistent way said don’t sugarcoat it,” Whitehead told me. While the kids wanted it given to them straight, it was the parents who were most concerned about stigma. But parents in the test group, according to Whitehead, “also made justifications and rationalizations for the kids’ obesity.” “Parents didn’t want to deal with it because the condition has been normalized,” Whitehead said.
This blunt awareness campaign is just the beginning, and is being followed by community-based anti-obesity programs based on “four essential building blocks every kid needs to be healthy—Eat Right, Be Active, Get Support and Have Fun.”
Watch the ads and decide for yourself if they are stigmatizing overweight and obese kids.
Let’s consider the ads' potential downside. Health promotion and behavior change are a tricky business, filled with misdirections, unintended consequences, and moral pitfalls. If it turns out that these ads are making overweight kids feel bad about themselves, that’s not likely to motivate behavior change. Sure, the ads might make parents of big kids more aware of the health problems associated with obesity, but in a culture that prizes cheap, easy, and unhealthy foods, and when physical activity for kids is on the decline, can we expect this type of campaign to elicit fundamental change? Most of the time, after all, kids are not in control when choosing what they eat.
If Children’s Health wanted shock value, there are certainly other ways to do it. Instead of calling attention to fat kids, call attention to the health effects of obesity that started in childhood.
Here’s my non-expert stab at an alternative ad:
FADE IN: An obese 40 year-old man is lying in a hospital bed, tubes in his arms and nose. His family is gathered around him. The camera pans across his near-lifeless body to a beeping heart monitor. As the image fades to black, the blinking heartbeat line flattens. A photo-montage reveals images of the man throughout his life, first as an obese youngster, then as an obese adult.
VOICEOVER: When obesity starts in childhood, it can end at 40. Stop sugarcoating it, Georgia.
Or something like that. You get my clunky point (I hope).
We’ll keep an eye on progress and data from the Strong4Life program to see if the campaign is effective – if, in fact, it is even possible to tell -- and whether or not these ads had their intended, or perhaps, unintended, effects.
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