The Ad Council and the US Department of Health and Human Services are facing criticism that their ads against obesity are too soft, “namby-pamby” and wimpy to do any good. We’ve all seen the ads that show people finding lumpy-looking fat blobs here and there, and being told that they are love handles that someone lost taking the stairs or doing some other activity. The ads are cutesy – a far cry from the ads against drug use and tobacco that show much more graphic images of wasted life.
It’s easy to see why the ads against obesity are so much less intense. For one, there’s power in numbers. More than two thirds of American adults are overweight, and the numbers are increasing every year. Compare that with only a quarter of Americans who smoke cigarettes and even fewer who use illegal drugs. It’s easy to target a minority group with hard-hitting ads. It’s a lot more challenging to have the gumption to go up against the majority of the country and tell them that they’re making serious mistakes that are going to have long-term health and financial consequences.
Health experts love to talk about the problems that obesity is causing (especially in the health insurance industry). But the messages are very mixed. Pick up any health-oriented magazine and you’ll find an article with all sorts of tips on how to lose weight and keep it off, followed immediately by an article about loving your body regardless of its size. So which is it – should we lose weight in order to be healthy, or should we learn to love our overweight bodies? I think these mixed signals are especially pronounced in publications aimed at women.
The ADA has classified morbid obesity as a disability, which makes it even harder to go after it with harsh advertising campaigns. We’re telling people who are 150 pounds overweight that they have a disability (implying that there isn’t anything they can do about it, and that they are protected by law against discrimination) which makes it hard to then send them the message that they absolutely must do something about it for the sake of their own lives.
Then there’s the financial aspect of being healthy. Let’s face it – eating well is a lot more expensive than eating junk. A person can live on $50/month eating nothing but ramen noodles and ding dongs. White pasta is half the price of the whole grain variety. A Totinos pizza will fill you up for $1.75, and so will a couple items from a fast food dollar menu. And make you fat in the process. When people are already stretching their budgets to cover basic necessities, it’s not realistic to expect them to suddenly double or triple their grocery bill in order to switch to more healthful foods.
So the question remains – does the Department of Health and Human Services really want to change the obesity levels in this country, or are the ads just paying lip service to a nice thought? Perhaps instead of subsidizing wheat and corn production, the government could start offering substantial subsidies to farmers who produce vegetables for human (not livestock) consumption, and help lower the prices on produce. They could tax junk foods and use the revenue to subsidize the cost of healthful food items, bringing them within the reach of more consumers. Safe, government funded recreation centers could be built in neighborhoods where it’s not safe to exercise outdoors. There are lots of concrete things we could be doing instead of -or in addition to – the feel-good ads.
It’s interesting to note that the federal health department and the Ad Council are part of the “Coalition for Health Children” which counts among their members Coca Cola, PepsiCo, the Hershey Co. and the National Confectioners Association. The coalition claims that there’s no conflict of interest there, but it’s hard to see how there wouldn’t be.
related: The Health of Colorado