Will New Ads in Georgia "Stop Childhood Obesity" or Increase Stigma and Bullying?

On Friday's Today show, there was an interesting analysis of a new campaign from the Georgia Child Health Alliance (GCHA) aimed at reducing childhood obesity. According to the GCHA website, the Warning: Stop Childhood Obesity media campaign "is part of a large-scale public awareness campaign designed to educate Georgians on the childhood obesity epidemic facing our state. Backed by market research, the campaign’s warning messages about obesity are developed to reach parents and children using communication vehicles such as billboards, television, radio and more".

From the Today show segment (which featured the campaign's Director, a child actor featured in the ads, and a child psychologist) we learned that this media campaign is part one of a three part campaign. The three parts were briefly outlined:

1- Raise awareness about childhood obesity; letting kids voice their struggle in their own words.
2- "Activate"- focus on healthy eating and activity
3- Focus on real solutions

While the GCHA outlines their strategic mission for this campaign, they are hearing some major objections to their approach and it continues to grab national headlines. The major concerns voiced by objectors such as Rebecca Puhl (a weight discrimination expert from Yale University), are that the ads will increase stigma for overweight kids (which could increase their experience of bullying) and that the ads will be ineffective due to their fear-based approach. In my review of the ads, I have mixed (mostly negative) feelings about their development and implementation:
  • Strike One: The goal of this campaign is listed as "raising awareness". These may be my two least favorite terms in all of public health. "Raising awareness" is too vague and does not lend itself to being evaluated. In actuality, campaign developers usually want to "increase knowledge" or "change perceptions" or "change behavior" (e.g., calling the 800 number on the screen). These are all things which can actually be measured and should be stated more clearly.
  • Strike Two: When the Today show asked the Campaign director about the audience for these ads, he replied "parents, kids, and educators". Again, this is way too vague. Your message and call to action (i.e., what you want the viewer to do after watching the ad) would be completely different for each of those audiences. For example, you may want educators to reach out to the parents of overweight kids in their classes or you may want kids to tell an adult if they are being bullied about their weight. These messages need to be tailored to each audience.
  • Strike Three: These ads definitely fall into the "fear-based" category. As you watch them, the ads read "WARNING" in bold red letters and you hear a "boom" (kinda like on "Law & Order) as the statistics run across the screen. As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, fear-based approaches have been found to be ineffective in other areas of prevention (e.g., alcohol and other drugs).
  • In terms of redeeming factors, it does seem that the campaign was developed using formative research which included focus groups with overweight kids. The results of these focus groups were used to develop the dialogue read by child actors in the ads so that it would be "in their words". If kids are the audience for these ads, then the age appropriate priorities and dialogue (with the inclusion of child actors) is positive. From health behavior theory (e.g., Social Learning Theory), we know that kids will respond better if they relate to those in the ads.
Of course, it is unclear if they also focus group tested the ads and billboards after initial development, before they were rolled out. It is also unclear how they are being evaluated and what the ultimate goals are (beyond "increased awareness"). I'll be interested to see parts two and three rolled out and hope to include follow up thoughts here on Pop Health.


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