A new wave of anti-obesity ads launched this week in Minnesota is gaining new criticism for shaming parents instead of helping to address the nation’s obesity crisis. One of the ads in the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota media campaign shows two boys at a fast food restaurant bragging about how much their dads can eat when an overweight man walks up and looks guiltily at his tray of burgers and fries. The other features a mother pushing a grocery cart loaded with junk food while her young daughter mimics her food choices.
Critics are arguing that these ads are unhelpful because they shame people who are overweight or obese, rather than offering them education or support. Lindy West, a blogger at Jezebel who called out the ad campaign, told NPR that the ads are “condescending.” “Fat people know about nutrition. We know that eating four cheeseburgers a day is not the way to go,” she said:
“Fat people hate being fat, because everyone’s mean to you, and you can’t find clothes that fit you, and you can’t fit into the chair at the restaurant,” she says. “We’ve been shaming fat people for decades, and clearly it’s not doing anyone any good.”
The ads were created by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. Marc Manley, the vice president and chief prevention officer, says he was very involved with the creation and messaging behind the ads.
“Our intent in creating these ads was really just to 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,” Manley says.
Manley told the Atlantic that Minnesota needs a stronger campaign to drive home the message in the hopes that parents will have an “aha moment” and change their behaviors to instill better habits in their children.
But researchers at Yale University found that messages that try to shame people into losing weight sometimes backfire because they “instill less motivation to improve health.” Negative messages are more likely to perpetuate stigmas against people who are overweight. As the Los Angeles Times points out, “Heavy workers earn less, are more likely to be passed over for jobs and promotions, and are more likely than their thinner peers to be viewed as lazy and undisciplined, researchers have found.” Instead, the Yale study found that the most effective public health campaigns didn’t even mention obesity and focused on specific ideas to improve health and empower people.