Are Georgia's Shocking Anti-Obesity Ads Going to Work?

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Georgia is trying to address the childhood obesity epidemic plaguing the state with an ad campaign that features obese children and lines such as, "Obesity takes the fun out of being a kid," "It's hard to be a little girl when you're not" and "Big bones didn't make me this way, big meals did." These billboards and television spots, created as part of Strong4Life, an awareness initiative by Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, have generated a great deal of controversy.

According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Children's Healthcare decided to go with the shock-value campaign after perusing research that showed that 50 percent of the people surveyed do not see childhood obesity as a problem and 75 percent of parents with kids who are overweight do not recognize that their children have a weight issue. A survey of their site did not turn up any link or citation for the research, nor was any information given as to how the data was compiled.

"Those ads will not change anything," said Nancy Synderman, NBC News' chief medical editor, during an interview with Matt Laurer on Today's Professionals.

"You don't think a parent might be more attentive to the health needs of a child, not to have them ridiculed?" Lauer asked.

"No. No. No." Synderman repeated in response.


"Kid on a scale" via Shutterstock.

Rebecca Puhl, Director of Research and Weight Stigma Initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University agrees that you can't shame families into making better health choices for their children, saying, "This campaign is an example of what not to do. We need to fight obesity, not obese individuals."

Puhl is not the only one who sees the ads as a potential threat. Amber Thornton, the Family Services Director at the Spears Family YMCA in Greensboro, North Carolina, works with obese children. Her concern is that the ads will point overweight kids out and make them a target, instead of generating discussions that will help address the problem of obesity. However, Thornton does think that the ads may help to open their parents' eyes to the crisis.

Psychologist Judith Sills agrees, but understands the price we'll pay as a society for these ads.

"Parents don't want to see [their] kid suffering, so you do have to kind of put it in their faces, say 'Take a look at this,'" she told Today's Meredith Viera. "There's a price to be paid, and the price is the stigma that fat is so awful we get nine-year-old girls dieting because they don't want to have that problem."

But will shame actually help get parents to do anything about obese kids? Australian psychologist Jo Lamble doesn't think so. She raised an interesting point on 9 News' Today show: "Shame is paralyzing, it doesn't motivate anyone to do anything. You can see it in the mother [in the ad], she just drops her head in shame [ ... ] They don't offer any solutions. They're just raising the issue in a very confronting way and then just leaving them hanging with these feelings of shame."

Karen Hilyard, a health communication researcher at University of Georgia agreed, reiterating that giving people information about what a family can do to help combat childhood obesity is essential to the initiative.

"We know from communication research that when we highlight a health risk but fail to provide actionable steps people can take to prevent it, the response is often either denial or some other dysfunctional behavior," Hilyard told the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

It's a valid concern. The site that the ads point to, strong4life.com, does offer some information about what to do, but these tips are offered in a slide show presentation that requires a lot of clicking and no option to print so the parent can reference tips on the go. Not that a parent would really benefit all that much from the rather vague tips. The site is completely devoid of information about how to prepare healthy meals that are cost-effective and easy to make, for example.

Another tab labeled "Ask" tells parents to ask a healthcare professional about their concerns -- there is very little information for parents who have no health insurance and need cost-effective access to healthcare professionals. "Contact your local public health department to learn about healthcare resources in your area."

Out of curiosity, I put myself in the shoes of a concerned parent who has seen the ads, gone to the site and decided to get my kid checked by a healthcare professional. I did a Google search for "local health department Atlanta" and clicked on the first link to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Their contact page listed so many different numbers, my head spun. Disease Prevention and Wellness? Family Health? Nutrition?

When I finally dialed one of the numbers, figuring I'd at least get redirected to the correct department if I'd dialed the wrong one, I received no answer. Eventually, voice mail picked up and a mechanic voice informed that the mailbox I was looking for did not exist. "Please enter the mailbox ID followed by pound," the voice said. Fantastic.

In summary, the Strong4Life campaign blames the parents for their children's health and gives them nothing to work with. We can't ignore that the obesity epidemic is related to a lot of factors that parents have to grapple with: lacking the income to provide healthy food, lacking the time to prepare meals at home, lacking the necessary education about nutrition and healthy eating habits. Is it fair to shame parents and offer no tangible solution that addresses these factors?

THINK OF THE CHILDREN

"Do you remember the ABC PSA program 'Watch Out for the Munchies'?" asked fellow writer Rita Arens when I prompted her about the Georgia ads. "It was pretty horrible: 'here munch this, here munch that, blah blah, oh, look, you're fat!' I was a fat kid, and I really hated that commercial. I felt like everyone was looking at me when it came on."

But this is no cartoon campaign. These are real kids -- actors, yes, but still kids. In a thread on the Ricki Lake Show Facebook page, a woman by the name of Karen Lamb Partin identified herself as the mother of one of the girls in the campaign and defended her choice to let her daughter participate.

"It has not had an impact on my daughter, to her it was a job she was hired to do," Partin said. "All of her friends and family that have seen it have been nothing but positive."

Maya Walters, a 14-year-old who participated in the Strong4Life ad campaign also had a positive view of her involvement. She told Today that she feels more confident now and that she has even lost a few pounds since doing the ad.

"I think it's really brave to talk about the elephant in the room," Walters told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "It's very provocative and makes people uncomfortable, but it's when people are uncomfortable that change comes."

Campaign chairman Ron Frieson of Children's Health Care Atlanta told the Today show that the coming second phase of the Strong4Life campaign will be less shocking.

"You'll see Maya and you'll see the rest of her counterparts there become much more active, extremely happy about their journey to become more healthy," he said. "And the third part of the campaign talks about the actual solution."

The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that Strong4Life, which launched last summer, is scheduled to run for five years. Children's Healthcare is footing half of the $50 million cost and seeking donations for the other half. The Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia recently contributed $95,000 to assist with the campaign.

What do you think? Have the ads made you stop and think about your children's weight? What do you do to make sure your kids are well-nourished and fit?

AV Flox is the section editor of Love & Sex and Health on BlogHer. You can connect with her on Twitter @avflox, Google Plus +AV Flox, or e-mail her directly at av.flox AT BlogHer DOT com

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