In an effort to help combat rising obesity rates in Minnesota, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota recently released two public service announcements (PSAs) focusing on how adult behaviors and choices affect kids. Since the videos were released, there’s been a slew of criticism tossed at Blue Cross and Blue Shield for “shaming overweight people.” One YouTube viewer notes, “Shame on you BCBS for continuing the thought process that shaming people is healthy and appropriate.” Others like the ads. For example, another YouTube viewer points out, “I see nothing offensive about this ad. Sometimes we make decisions and we don’t think about the effect they have on the younger ones.” Marc Manley, the vice president and chief prevention officer of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota makes no apologies for the ads, telling NPR that he was “Very involved with the creation and messaging behind the ads” and that the intent was to create ads that, “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.

All over the Internet people have taken sides over the anti-obesity ads. Keep reading to see where people stand and to see some important statistics about obesity in the USA.

Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

Do these sort of ads work?

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen debates like this. Last year Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta kicked off a grim, yet realistic and highly controversial anti-obesity campaign Strong4Life that included billboards and commercials. About 700 mom and dad bloggers, fitness professionals, Registered Dietitians, doctors and other individuals called the ads shaming, put up a huge fight and rallied together to end the campaign – and they succeeded. Strong4Life took down their billboards and created more neutral messages about how parents can talk to their kids about weight, exercise and food choices. The end of the campaign wasn’t met with total joy though. Many felt the ads did make a difference — including Maya Walters, a teenager with high blood pressure who appeared in one of the ads. Walters told the Atlantic Journal-Constitution,  “I think it’s really brave to talk about the elephant in the room. It’s very provocative and makes people uncomfortable, but it’s when people are uncomfortable that change comes.

Children’s Healthcare, who created the ads were happy with their results in spite of the ads being taken down.  Linda Matzigkeit, a senior vice president at Children’s Healthcare noted, “In the end, I think people are saying it really is time for a wake-up call. It’s not good for business if your state has the second-highest obesity rate.” Matzigkeit also points out that Children’s Healthcare commonly sees children with heart disease and diabetes, or who need knee replacements, all due to excess weight. On top of this, when the Strong4Life campaign was tested, Matzigkeit said 85% of those who saw the ads said the approach seemed appropriate. Plus, and this is key, Trust for America’s Health research shows that after Strong4Life launched,  Georgia’s obesity rate dropped from 28.7% to 28%, a small but very significant shift.

We need a wake-up call

Personally, though I may be in the minority, I liked the Strong4Life campaign last year and I like the new Blue Cross and Blue Shield ads this year as well.  I think they do make parents stop and consider their own habits, and how those habits affect their kids. Some Blue Cross and Blue Shield ads have created some very positive results. For example, the video above was made a year ago, and in the comments you’ll see a lot of upset people, but you’ll also see this comment, “I was in this commercial… and as soon as it aired, I changed my lifestyle and lost 30 lbs. I don’t think BCBS will be casting me in another commercial like this, and that’s okay with me. 🙂” Plus, America does need a wake up call. Not simply about weight, but healthy food choices and exercise too – for everyone. Here are some U.S. statistics.

  • The CDC notes that more than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7%) are obese (not counting folks who are overweight) and just last month, the Trust for America’s Health predicted that by 2030 adult obesity rates will exceed 60% of all adults.
  • CDC reports show that since 1980, obesity rates have tripled among youth and that now about 17% (or 12.5 million) U.S. children and adolescents aged 2—19 years are obese (not counting kids who are overweight). Researchers further estimate that if people continue to avoid making healthy diet and activity changes, more than one in five young people will be obese by 2020.
  • National Conference of State Legislatures notes that $2800 million in obesity-attributable expenditures were spent in Minnesota in 2009 alone. Add in the rest of the states and you’ve got a costly issue in hand.

If these ads spark conversation or create motivation to change in at least a few families, then the ads, in my opinion are worth it.

Should we shut down the new ads and ignore them?

What I see happening is that people will complain that the ads are mean and try to get Blue Cross and Blue Shield to quit making ads like this, just like people complained about Strong4Life and the Australian PSA shown above. Maybe there’s a way to create happier, more people-pleasing ads about childhood obesity, who knows? Or maybe we’ve danced around health topics that relate to kids long enough. In fact, what’s most discouraging to me is that if these were ads about other harmful habits, such as smoking or drinking, there would be ZERO debate. Imagine an ad where a dad and his kid are walking through the store buying alcohol and later at home dad is drinking and the kid sneaks a drink too. No one would say a word about how people should quit making drinkers feel bad. No one complains when ads come out that make smokers feel guilty. We don’t want our kids to drink or smoke, and why, because they’re unhealthy habits so we applaud ads that speak out against said habits.

But, junk food, inactivity and excess weight are also unhealthy for kids, yet we don’t think it’s okay to point it out. In fact, food and weight are huge elephants in the room. We’re talking about a country where doctors aren’t even telling parents when their kids are overweight. Surveys show that parents would rather discuss drug use, smoking and sex with their kids before having to discuss nutrition and weight issues.

I do think ads aimed at all kids is a good idea – I’ve seen just as many skinny kids eating junk and not exercising as I have kids who are overweight. Instead of debating how we present the issue of childhood weight and nutrition, we could encourage health organizations to create videos that are designed to educate families (and by educate, I don’t mean McDonald’s style education). We need more videos that show proper food portion sizes, cooking and shopping tips, and ways parents and kids can get active and avoid media ads for junk food. On that note though, Blue Cross and Blue Shield did release some more positive ads a while back; for example an ad that encouraged people to get up and dance. Manley points out that the positive ads failed, saying, “Just because people like an ad doesn’t mean it moves them to action.” Manley further notes that obesity in Minnesota is such a problem now that the organization felt they needed a more dramatic approach, one that may, “Trigger some thinking and some dialogue about this very serious health problem.” Like the ads or not, they have gotten people talking about childhood obesity, nutrition and exercise, which achieves what the ads set out to do. Let us know what you think in the comments. How can we create a healthier world for all our kids? And if you hate these ads, what sort of ads do you think would be more successful?

+ Whose responsibility is childhood obesity? – an excellent take on this tough issue

+ Bearing the burden of the uphill battle against childhood obesity

+ How to create healthy home eating and exercise habits

+ Facts about healthy eating, proper portion sizes and more