In recent weeks, there have been a number of hard-hitting anti-obesity campaigns making headlines. As Trish Taylor described earlier this week, Georgia’s “Strong4Life” anti-childhood obesity campaign, introduced by the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, uses short ads, billboards, and TV spots depicting an obese child and statements including “fat kids become fat adults,” and “it’s hard to be a little girl when you’re not” to urge Georgia to “stop sugar coating the problem.” The campaign was selected for its shock value after research revealed that despite Georgia ranking second nationally for overweight and obese children, 50 percent of the people surveyed did not recognize childhood obesity as a problem and 75 percent of parents with overweight or obese children did not see their children as having a weigh issue. The campaign is planned as a $50 million project over five years, with three phases.
In addition, New York City launched subway ads this week, one of which features a diabetic man whose leg was amputated due to complications with the disease alongside of growing portions of soda and the statements, “Cut your portions. Cut your risk.” and “Portions have Grown. So has type 2 diabetes, which can lead to amputations.” By highlighting growing portion sizes and their potentially devastating consequences, the New York Health Department hopes to urge New Yorkers to be more aware of the quantity of their food and beverage choices. The campaign ads direct those interested to call 311 to receive a “Healthy Eating Packet.”
Both campaigns have been heavily criticized in the media and by health professionals for their hard-hitting approach to raising awareness about obesity because of their failure to follow through on actionable messages and resources. In light of the ongoing dialogue about these campaigns, and our fear that campaigns such as these might deter future thought-provoking, arresting, and actionable public health campaigns, Trish and I have been discussing the value and effectiveness of “wake up call” campaigns. Here is our point of view.
Both the Georgia and New York City campaigns are commendable for their attempts to bring attention to the issue of obesity and directly depict the growing obesity epidemic through straightforward “wake-up calls.” Educational information is widely available with respect to both obesity in general and childhood obesity and is not proving effective in terms of motivating behavior change or reductions in obesity. Therefore, a startling campaign aimed at cutting through the clutter of information and compelling action seems reasonable and necessary.
Despite this positive first step, however, once the campaigns have their audiences’ attention, they both fail to deliver any call to action or provide information about what can be done to help alleviate the problems of childhood obesity or disease associated with poor health and nutrition. Georgia’s “Strong4Life” campaign provides people with the website link to the campaign, but no language or information, for example, explaining that more information on preventing childhood obesity is available. Furthermore, upon entering the site, there is limited information about strategies to prevent childhood obesity and the information that is provided is not presented in easy to find or use formats. The NY City campaign does provide a byline directing people to 311 for a Healthy Eating Packet, however, it too fails to provide clear direction on how to eat a healthful diet in order to prevent or reverse health related diseases such as diabetes. Further, it fails to provide a sense of relevancy and immediacy to its audiences, easily allowing them to look at the consequences of diabetes and say, “that’s not me.” Communication best practices indicate that highlighting a health risk without providing actionable steps that people can take to prevent it can often lead to negative behavior or denial. Unfortunately, both the GA and NY City campaigns demonstrate that principle in practice.
In the current obesity landscape, there is an abundance of information and campaigns informing and educating about the risks of obesity and childhood obesity. Yet, this information is not compelling behavior change. Emotionally-based, self awareness campaigns that utilize startling and compelling tactics are necessary to cut through the noise and reach people where they are. That said, startling campaigns that speak directly and honestly must be done right; these campaigns must still be educational campaigns and provide tools and resources to positively influence action and effectuate healthful lifestyle choices. Said another way, thought-provoking campaigns cannot stop at startling and compelling, but must pay off with more of a true call-to-action and behavior change message. Once the audience understands that the public health campaign is “talking to them,” the campaign must then optimize resources, information, and other behavior change campaigns to provide tips, guidance, and tools for changing lifestyle behaviors and motivate and empower them to take action.
What’s your take on the value and effectiveness of “wake-up call” campaigns?