Thursday, September 27, 2012

Anti-Obesity Ads Rile Some--But Empower Most

Some people are irate that a new series of short TV ads by Blue Cross in Minnesota, aimed at getting parents to think about the food-related example they're setting, implies Moms and Dads are to blame for their kids' overweight. They say a parent's ephiphany about his influence amounts to "shaming" them. I disagree.

One of the controversial ads, below, notes how children mimic their parents. A second ad in a fast-food restaurant (called "Eating Out") shows a dad bringing his heavily-laden tray to the table, catching his son and friend bragging about the amounts their fathers can consume. The underlying assumption is, of course, that obesity is an epidemic and scourge that will lead to all sorts of health problems for children, and that its cause is too much unhealthy food, provided by parents. That may be erroneous, but the theme of the ads is "today is the day:" Now, rather than later, is the time to improve.

I'm writing a book on the obesity issue, and my work leads me to conclude that the nation's expanding girth cannot be attributed to junk food. I've found there are dozens of possible causes for the rise in obesity rates that started in 1980 and leveled off in 2000. It's unlikely that, as in the following ad, people's shopping carts overflow only with cookies, chips, sugary cereals and soda pop (and nothing fresh).

 But no one can debate the notion that parents are powerful models for their children, and good parents want their children to emulate healthful behaviors. I say there's nothing wrong with reminding parents that their actions shape their children.

Being a "good example" is a worthy goal in every aspect of life. Considering the idea--and its immediacy--can relate to myriad spheres. Moms can ask themselves if they're modeling for daughters desirable ways to talk to a spouse; fathers might wonder if they're conveying to their sons what a husband should be. Everyone can watch their interactions with others to be sure they're kindly--e.g. Are phone conversations polite?

No parent on earth thinks junk food only is a healthy diet, though I've nothing against junk food, as long as a person chooses it in response to his own body's signals--in which case it's likely to be but a small part of an overall picture. Well-meaning authorities' pronouncements or emotional issues can interfere with the natural connection to one's physical nutritional needs; we're programmed to be omnivores. Unfortunately, our culture tells us to disregard that in favor of some program or rules devised by an expert.

My research suggests that most overweight and obese individuals are not to blame for their sizes (there are many hypotheses about cause, including a cold virus, environmental toxins, genetic and hormonal changes). It's cruel and harsh that our society confers diminshed respect on its larger members, often denying them recognition or even common courtesies because of unfair disdain.  Embarrassing or shaming are unacceptable approaches to anyone--but these ads really don't do that.

Instead, they offer empowerment. Some people just don't consider the effects of what they're doing, and they could.  The mom whose shopping cart is filled only with junk food is probably a fantasy, and how many kids get in verbal war about whose dad can eat more? But that's not the point of these messages. They let parents pause to consider their role as teacher in their everyday behavior, and take it a step further by urging adults to improve now.

By the way, taking responsibility is a theme in the health-promoting Blue Cross ad series. Nobody's complaining about the one that chides people for their own lack of discipline, using a parody of the song "Tomorrow" from the play "Annie" (below). I don't see much difference between taking responsibility for one's own unhealthy choices (smoking, being sedentary, pigging out) and a parent taking responsibility for the food environment of his children at home. I do not think parents should force any food choices on children, but at the same time, a parent realizing where she can make positive differences in her family's lives today is motivating and uplifting.


  1. A persons weight is not as complicated as people want to make it. It comes down to simple math, when you consume more calories then you use you gain weight. Highly processed food is nowhere as filling as real food (grains fruits vegetables). The additives put into cheep highly processed foods along with the highly suggestive advertising, makes them quite addicting. This year schools have started to overhaul the crap they serve as school lunch and the kids have gone into rebellion, just like a bunch of addicts being denied their fix. To say junk food is not to blame people have to just use it more responsibly is like telling an Alcoholic to learn how to drink like a gentleman! You need to take the addictive substance out of the equation and teach people how to eat properly again, how fruit really tastes much better then candy. The number one cause of obesity in the country today is the governments subsidies of corn and soy products. To even hint that a cold virus is to blame for the current health crisis in the country is almost unpatriotic.

  2. My children will undoubtedly disagree with Diane's thoughts on obesity and causation, but many professionals are revisiting this topic.I look forward to her book release.
    My daughter is in the first year of a Master's in Public Health and the referenced ads have been discussed.
    Thank you for the article.