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.