Obesity Campaigns That Don’t Work

Public education is vital, but not all campaigns are effective, and some are simply mean.
A new study finds that anti-obesity campaigns which elicit shame aren't nearly as effective as ones that leave people with a sense of empowerment. (Photo: George Doyle/Getty Images)
Sep 15, 2012· 1 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

In Georgia, the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life anti-obesity campaign shows a picture of an overweight child, which bears the tagline, “Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid.” Another ad from the same campaign states, “Chubby kids may not outlive their parents.” Though these messages may be eye-catching, they are the least effective for promoting healthy behaviors in those who see them―according to a new study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale.

The study found that the public responds much more favorably to ads that promote specific healthy choices. Examples of these actions include increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, like in the national “5-A-Day” campaign, or increasing daily exercise as promoted by Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign. According to the study, ads like these promote a sense of confidence and personal empowerment for those who viewed them, resulting in feelings of greater motivation to make healthier choices.

Researchers also noted that the ads that rated the very highest in terms of their ability to motivate people were actually the ads that made no mention of obesity at all.

The campaigns that were the least effective, like the Strong4Life ads, are void of specific health strategies, and instead generally focus on placing blame or shame on people who are struggling with their weight.

Rebecca Puhl, the Rudd Center’s director of research, explains on the institution's website, “Public health campaigns that are designed to address obesity should carefully consider the kinds of messages that are disseminated, so that those who are struggling with obesity can be supported in their efforts to become healthier, rather than shamed and stigmatized.”

The link between the feeling of empowerment and a person’s ability to make healthy choices appears to be especially poignant in light of another just-released study. The Atlantic Monthly reports that the Centers for Disease Control study found that women who read food labels are on average eight pounds lighter than their non-reading counterparts. Though the results are still correlative, they do echo the same sentiment as the Yale study: consumers who are empowered with useful information tend to make healthier choices.

In the end, offering the public education and encouragement beat out blame and humiliation when it comes to motivating people to lead healthier lives.

Do you think using negative emotions- like fear or shame- might still be an effective tool for changing some behaviors? Let us know your take in the Comments.