Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Georgia's "fat kids" campaign: wake-up call or useless guilt trip?

Annie at Fuse Communications sent me a link to this Georgia childhood obesity campaign from Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, asking for my opinion. It's a tough one.

The brutally frank ads target the parents of overweight children, who are thought to be either unaware or in denial about how their children's diet and activity choices affect their health and self-esteem.

According to ABC news:

"Children's Healthcare of Atlanta chose the straightforward approach after its survey of two towns in Georgia found that 50 percent of parents did not know childhood obesity was a problem and 75 percent of parents with obese children did not think their child was overweight."

But here's that defensive processing dilemma, that keeps showing up in social marketing campaigns. Negative portrayals of viewer behaviour tend to make  the target market turn away, rather than mend their ways, and can even backfire.

The issue of parenting is an especially volatile one. Try having a civil conversation about breastfeeding versus bottle feeding, infant male circumcision, or co-sleeping with a random group of parents online. You'll end up with a flamewar.

Diet and fat-shaming is another one of these issues. While parents need to be aware that their obese and/or inactive kids need healthier habits for their own sake, when you criticize someone's parenting you really hit them where it hurts most. I expect this campaign did exactly that.

From the original article:

"Blaming the victim rarely helps," said Dr. Miriam Labbok, director of the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "These children know they are fat and that they are ostracized already."
"While guilt and fear are motivators, they have to be meted out with the answer to the situation," Labbok said. "The ads with the children do not offer help to them."
According to health communication experts, successful public health campaigns offer a clear call to action. Labbok says the Georgia ads address the problem, but don't give viewers a clear solution.

So what's the answer? Social marketing theory says positive modelling is the key. But positive modelling takes a long time to be effective. All social change does. It's understandable that Children's Healthcare of Atlanta chose a more confrontational approach, because they can see that it is an urgent public health crisis. But then again, so is smoking (especially around kids), alcohol dependence, and a general lack of concern about buying, cooking and eating healthy food.

None of these problems is going to be solved quickly using the blunt instrument of guilt advertising. All that does is preach to the choir, making impatient activists feel better that something major is being done.

No matter what people tell you, ads can only do so much. This is a job for doctors, nurses, educators and community leaders to take on, full-time, for the next 10 or 20 years. It's complicated, slow, and will not win anyone any awards. But it's what has to happen for real change to occur.


  1. This campaign is the first of three...with the other 2 phases focusing on health promotion - healthy eating & exercise

    I wonder if these phases will receive the same funding & media attention

  2. Fascinating stuff.

    I agree that negative modelling isn't so helpful - after all, many attempts to create cognitive dissonance actually leave the audience navigating their way around the dissonant facts to recreate their reasoning in a far more comfortable way.

    "But I love him"
    "His little face lights up at dinner time!"

    And so on.

    Positive modelling does take a long time, but can be effective in conjunction with other initiatives - but you have to be able to not only establish the societal norm, but also provide clear pathways for people to access that norm.

    I think what's needed is a new approach - one I've called Community Network Marketing. This looks at the issues from all available touchpoints and taps into what the community actually mean when they give the reasons for their actions.

    Telling anyone they're a bad parent or a lard ass is just going to put their backs up.

    It's time for something different.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts Tom. This is definitely a hard one. Obesity is indeed largely related to education and financial capacity; however, as they say in the article, the issue is also the fact that parents do not see their kids as obese. I think that by putting these kids on TV and calling a spade a spade, parents will start to see that the issue is touching them and that they need to do something for their own kids. This is a tough one, which is why I was curious to have your opinion on it.

  4. "one I've called Community Network Marketing. This looks at the issues from all available touchpoints and taps into what the community actually mean when they give the reasons for their actions".

    What?!?! A lot of bollocks. No client cares for that fancy marketing jargon. Suggest something concrete. What you wrote was a bunch of fluff.

    So the questions is: what works? This doesn't work, what previously has been done doesn't work. If you ask me, nothing would work, so maybe it's time for these state agencies to stop wasting money on these useless campaigns.

  5. Annie: I do agree that the problem is one of parental ignorance or denial of the problem. My criticism has to do with the attempt to confront parents with that fact. People are not passive receivers of rational arguments. They have many built-in defences to changing their way of thinking — including anger (you asshole, you don't get it!), further denial (my kid's not that fat!), or rationalization (but the doctor told us it was genetic!) — that keep them from changing their ways.

  6. Putting aside the many macro issues that contribute to the obesity epidemic (food deserts, the relative affordability of processed foods compared to whole foods), one of the micro issues behind childhood obesity is lack of activity.. perhaps a harkening back to the days of Participaction, where physical activity was encouraged, with a focus on the BENEFITS of an active lifestyle, rather than the negative impact of obesity. Being active can be FUN.

    Children should also be allowed to play outside (it's not just video games that are responsible for kids being inside, sedentary, all day long. It's also this over-arching fear that if you let a kid under 12 out of your sight for five minutes then OMGKIDNAPPERS!!!). Communities need to go back to a time when we all knew our neighbors and we looked out for each other, instead of the constant isolation and distrust.

  7. In my neighbourhood in Ottawa, we all do know each other and the kids have the run of the homes on our block. And we live in the city.

  8. That's awesome, I'm glad there are still neighbourhoods like that. I get still get the side-eye sometimes because I let (and sometimes force) my kids to play outside by themselves (they are 8 and 10) and I live in a small town.