In August 2011 Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta kicked off a grim, yet realistic and highly controversial anti-obesity campaign. The Children’s Stop Childhood Obesity campaign includes billboards, ads and commercials across the Atlanta area and is meant to help raise awareness about childhood obesity and to improve the health of overweight and obese children. The ads and commercials are stark black and white with punctuated red text, showing pictures of overweight children and highlighting some of the social and health problems they face. The ads have created quite a stir over the last year, and now the campaign, which you can check out on the Strong4Life website has released a new, even harsher commercial that’s sure to cause even more controversy. Keep reading to see the new commercial.

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Childhood Obesity in America

The new commercial, shown above clearly points out that parents play a huge role in the childhood obesity epidemic. In fact, the ad goes so far as to indicate that parents may be killing their kids with poor choices and indecisive parenting. Is this necessary? How problematic is childhood obesity? While some don’t like the campaign, it’s hard to argue that an anti-obesity campaign isn’t needed. Georgia has the 2nd highest childhood obesity rate in the U.S. and about 40% (nearly 1 million) of Georgia’s children are overweight or obese. Not that Georgia is unique. The American Heart Association, among other organizations, reports that one in three American kids and teens is overweight or obese. In case you think this is a common age-old problem, research shows it’s not. Kids didn’t used to be, as a rule, overweight or obese. In fact, the CDC notes that childhood obesity rates have more than tripled in the past 30 years. Obesity is now the second most common preventable cause of death in this country after smoking. Obesity is quickly catching up to smoking though and it may soon be the number one most common cause of death in the USA. In fact, in even more sobering news, some experts note that our kids may be the first generation who won’t live as long as the previous generation, due to health issues caused by excess weight.

Arguments Against Strong4Life

The blogosphere has formed an almost united front against Strong4Life, with most bloggers and other media outlets calling the ads out as shaming, mean, non-useful and much worse. The fact that the ads may stigmatize overweight children has hit a sore point with most people and some feel the ads only encourage bullying. One San Francisco fat activist has helped raise more than $12,000 to launch an anti-Strong4Life campaign. This new campagin, Stand4Everybody, notes that Strong4Life, “Publicly stigmatizes, shames, and humiliates fat kids, which risks encouraging bullying from peers, family, and health professionals, causing untold psychological damage.” Others hate this campaign because they feel a positive campaign that focuses on healthy habits is a better plan. Some feel the campaign mixes up “thin” with “healthy” while others are spouting that overweight children can have a happy and healthy childhood so we should leave them alone. Of course, this isn’t the only campaign being called out. Fat activists also don’t like Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign because it encourages monitoring the body mass index (BMI) of kids. Activists in the fat-acceptance movement and other health experts who feel a “health at every size” approach is better, feel BMI monitoring may serve to further stigmatize overweight kids.

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Image by Flickr User malias

In Support of Strong4Life

Carolina Cruxent, Director of Wellness Marketing at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta notes that the ads aren’t marketed at kids, but that, “These ads are intended to raise awareness of this health crisis among parents and caregivers, so that we may all come together to work toward a solution.” Many wonder how pointing out that kids are overweight will actually help, but there’s actually good reasons to be on board with realistic and frank discussions about childhood obesity. Research shows that most parents of overweight and obese children fail to notice that their kid or kids are overweight. Worse, research points out that pediatricians are very reluctant to discuss weight issues with families. Just  22% of parents of children with BMIs in the 85th percentile or higher say that their doctor has ever mentioned that their child was overweight. The denial about weight in this country may be due to a lack of education or it may be due to adults who are simply fearful of bringing up weight with their kids. In fact, a recent survey shows that parents are more comfortable discussing drug use, smoking and sex with their kids than they are discussing weight issues, even though none of these issues are as prevalent as weight.

Ads like this, while grim, may be worthwhile in building awareness for parents about what an overweight child actually looks like. This is an important point according to CDC researchers, who note that when you live in a country where one in three kids is overweight, excess weight starts to become the accepted norm. As one of these CDC researchers says, “If everyone’s getting heavier, it’s like there’s a new standard. There’s sort of a shift in the norm based on what people see.” If so many people have trouble recognizing excessive weight when they see it, then ads like this may be useful. And note that some parents have appreciated the wake-up call these ads offer. Then of course, there is the benefit of awareness leading to healthier habits. Some proclaim that kids can be healthy, even when overweight. Of course this is true; fat or thin – weight does not always dictate good or poor health. However, most kids who are overweight do face a slew of health problems such as hypertension, fatty liver disease and Type 2 diabetes, not to mention social problems.

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What the Kids in the Ads Say

If you’re wondering what the kids in the ads think, you can rest easy knowing that they seem to be on board and they support the messages provided by the ads. 14-year-old Maya Walters told The Atlanta Journal Constitution: “I think it’s very 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.” Lastly, consider that as shocking as the ads may be, other shocking health-minded ads have seen major success in recent years. Scary and realistic meth ads have resulted in a reduction in meth use by 63%. Other research shows that shocking teen pregnancy campaigns and grim anti-smoking campaigns also work to reduce the issues they present. Shock value may be stigmatizing or harmful in some ways, but in other ways often these are the only sorts of campaigns that see success. As Patty Gregory, a spokesperson for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta notes, “To date, the stop childhood obesity ads have raised awareness of childhood obesity and launched a vitally important conversation about the issue. We have not seen evidence that these ads are harming kids. Rather, our doctors tell us they are having better conversations in their offices with families.

You tell us? Is a wake-up call and such stark images needed to fight childhood obesity, or are the ads just too harsh?

+ Strong4Life