2:39am

Thu September 27, 2012
The Salt

New Anti-Obesity Ads Blaming Overweight Parents Spark Criticism

Originally published on Thu September 27, 2012 3:50 am

This week, a new anti-obesity media campaign launched in Minnesota has been getting a lot of attention, and not necessarily the good kind.

One ad (see above) features two kids bragging about how much their dads can eat, and trying to one-up each other. A dad walks up, hears the kids, and looks down guiltily at his tray of burgers and fries. Another ad shows an overweight mom wheeling a cart of unhealthy groceries around the store, eventually noticing that her chubby daughter is wheeling a smaller cart but doing the same thing.

The messaging has sparked fresh debate about going after overweight people in the name of taking on the well-documented public health concerns over the country's growing waistlines. The Atlantic places the ads in the "gray area between educating and shaming."

And Lindy West, a staff writer at the blog Jezebel who is frank about her own weight issues, wrote a tirade about the new ads, called: "It's Hard Enough to Be a Fat Kid Without the Government Telling You You're an Epidemic." The post has garnered more than 63,000 comments so far. (Warning: Parts of West's post are not family fare.)

"The idea that some kids would sit around bragging about their fat dad who's so proud of how fat he is, is just ludicrous," she tells The Salt.

"I just find [the ad campaign] to be really reductive and — condescending comes to mind. Fat people know about nutrition. We know that eating four cheeseburgers a day is not the way to go."

For West, the ads are squarely in the shaming category. "Fat people are already ashamed. People are already really unhappy with their bodies, which has a lot to do with the way that other people talk to you, and these preconceived notions that they have about your life.

"Fat people hate being fat, because everyone's mean to you, and you can't find clothes that fit you, and you can't fit into the chair at the restaurant," she says. "We've been shaming fat people for decades, and clearly it's not doing anyone any good."

The ads were created by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. Marc Manley, the vice president and chief prevention officer, says he was very involved with the creation and messaging behind the ads.

"Our intent in creating these ads was really just to show good parents having moments of realization that they needed to change their own behavior in order to send the right message to their kid," Manley says.

He says the nonprofit used to put out PSAs that were more positive, like this one encouraging people to get up and dance. But, he says, the problem of obesity in Minnesota and nationwide is so tough, they needed a new, more dramatic approach.

Rebecca Puhl at Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, has spent over a decade studying attitudes toward weight.

She recently headed a nationwide study that looked at attitudes toward different anti-obesity messages.

"What our research shows is that people feel much more motivated and empowered to make healthy lifestyle changes when campaign messages are supportive and encourage specific health behaviors," she says. "But when campaign messages communicate shame or blame or stigma, people report much less motivation, and lower intentions to improve their health behaviors."

Manley says he stands by the new ads. "Just because people like an ad doesn't mean it moves them to action," he says. These ads are just part of a range of efforts his organization is undertaking to address the obesity issue.

The goal of the ads, he adds, is "to trigger some thinking and some dialogue about this very serious health problem."

It's fair to say they've certainly done that.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This week a new, anti-obesity media campaign in Minnesota has been getting attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD ACTOR #1: (As character) Do you know my dad can eat three huge bacon cheeseburgers - this big?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD ACTOR #2: (As character) For my dad, that's like a snack.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD ACTOR #1: (As character) Yeah, well, he also...

GREENE: This TV spot sparked a debate about targeting overweight people and their habits, in the name of public health. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin reports.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: So that ad...

(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD ACTOR #3: (As character) Yeah, well, my dad can eat five buckets of fried chicken.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD ACTOR #4: (As character) My dad can eat a thousand chicken nuggets.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD ACTOR #5: (As character) My dad...

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: An overweight dad listens to the kids as he walks up, and looks down guiltily at his tray of fries and burgers.

(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD ACTOR #5: (As character) Well, one day, I'll be able to eat twice that.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Text flashes over the screen. Quote: "Today is the day we set a better example for our kids."

LINDY WEST: The idea that some kids would sit around bragging about their fat dad, who's so proud of how fat he is - is just ludicrous.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's Lindy West. She's a writer for the blog "Jezebel," and she wrote a tirade about the new ad campaign.

WEST: I just find it to be really reductive and really - condescending, is what comes to mind. Like, fat people know about nutrition. We know that eating four cheeseburgers a day, is not the way to go.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: West wrote, in her piece, about her own experience growing up big and tall and overweight. From her point of view, these ads don't educate as much as they shame.

WEST: Fat people are already ashamed. People are already really unhappy with their bodies - which has a lot to do with the way that other people talk to you, and these preconceived notions that they have about your life. Like, fat people hate being fat because everyone's mean to you; and you can't find clothes that fit you; and you can't fit in the chair, at the restaurant. Like, we've been shaming fat people for decades and clearly, it's not doing anyone any good.

DR. MARC MANLEY: Our intent in creating these ads, was really just to show good parents having moments of realization; what they needed to change - their own behavior - in order to send the right message to their kid.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's Dr. Marc Manley, vice president and chief prevention officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota. He says the nonprofit used to put out PSAs that were more positive - encouraging people to get up and dance, and stuff like that. But the problem is so tough, they decided to try this new approach. Now, obviously, these are two, very particular perspectives on a really complicated issue. I wanted to get some context, so I reached out to Dr. Rebecca Puhl at Yale.

DR. REBECCA PUHL: We've recently done some research, specifically looking at public support for different anti-obesity campaigns.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She's spent over a decade studying attitudes towards weight. And the research has shown that people respond best to supportive messages that are specific - like, take the stairs; or, eat five fruits and veggies a day.

PUHL: But when campaign messages communicate blame or shame or stigma, people report much less motivation, and lower intentions to improve their health behavior.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Manley, in Minnesota, stands by the new ads; saying they're part of a bunch of different approaches, and that the response has been mostly positive.

MANLEY: We want these ads to trigger some thinking, and some dialogue, about this very serious health problem.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: They've certainly done that. Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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