An ad campaign meant to combat obesity in California features a pudgy little girl drinking a packet of sugar and smiling. Below her, the ad warns: “Sugary drinks like juice, sports drinks and soda can cause obesity. Choose milk and water instead.”
However, the little girl in the ad has put on the pounds not because of too much sugar, but because of too much Photoshopping. First 5, the government-run healthy kids initiative, doctored a photo of the same girl drinking milk to make her look much heavier than she actually is. San Francisco resident Marilyn Wann noticed the alteration and posted a side-by-side comparison on her Facebook page (above). Wann asked, “How creepy is it to Photoshop this child in this manner? If public health messages lie like this, why should people trust them?”
The campaign has a version of the same ad for the Vietnamese community, featuring an overweight Asian child:
First 5 defended the altered photos, arguing they were only trying to “show parents the real-life consequences of obesity and what sugar can do to our children’s lives.”
The ads are deliberately targeted at poor minority communities, which generally have much higher obesity rates. Black, Latino and Asian children in poor urban areas are already being targeted by junk food companies, leading one 9-year-old girl to confront the McDonald’s CEO over their deceptive marketing to kids last week.
What’s more, these ad campaigns — which notably feature little girls — contribute to the body-shame epidemic that has started earlier and earlier among girls. According to researchers, girls as young as 5 years old are obsessed with body image, while eating disorders are becoming more common. The trend is growing rapidly; the percentage of girls who believe they must be thin to be popular rose from 48 percent to 60 percent in just 6 years.
As Jezebel points out, extensive studies show that shaming overweight children doesn’t actually help them lose weight. In fact, many scientists doubt that anti-obesity advertising campaigns have any noticeable impact on people’s behavior.
Nevertheless, anti-obesity campaigns have regularly exploited the fat kid stigma in the name of promoting healthy eating. One controversial TV campaign in Georgia depicted overweight children talking about how they wish they were thinner so they wouldn’t be bullied in school, followed by a banner reading, “Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid.”
What does seem to work is aggressive nutrition policy; the childhood obesity rate dropped this year in several cities that have reformed school lunch programs to be healthier and banned sugary drinks and deep-fryers from school cafeterias.