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New Anti-Obesity Ads Blaming Overweight Parents Spark Criticism

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.
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