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Recently, a group called Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta ran a series of PSAs with the goal of reaching Georgia’s parents by breaking through the clutter of anti-obesity messages (see the PSAs and the article from the Chicago Tribune on this debate). Their tagline, “Stop Sugarcoating it, Atlanta,” suggests that their aim was to shock, or at least to shake up a populace that they perceive to be apathetic about the increasing size of its children. The only problem…they succeeded.

Most of us would probably pay little attention to yet another TV spot that spewed statistics about childhood obesity and its consequences (increased levels of diabetes and asthma, just to name two oft-highlighted downsides of carrying around extra weight); but these ads not only spoke about, but also showed the emotional consequences of being overweight. The captivating commercials feature overweight kids standing in sparse settings. We can’t tell where (presumably in Georgia) they’re from, what SES category they fit into, and in most cases, whether they come from obese parents. We don’t know what type of schools they attend, or what they serve in the cafeteria. We, the viewer, are simply confronted with the outcome of a complex system of events, conditions, and choices. And, importantly, the outcome is more apparent in the eyes of these kids than in the size of their bodies.  

It might be easy to applaud the efforts of this group and call it a day, but as the Tribune’s Bonnie Miller Rubin suggests, the response has been far from what this non-profit group expected. Instead of receiving accolades, the group has found themselves accused of “blaming the victims.” Experts have lined up on either side of this debate: do we stigmatize children further by showing unhappy overweight children, or do we keep these real children out of it? And, to echo a concern we raised in a blog post in 2011, are we focusing kids’ attention on weight in a way that might have undesirable side effects? We want our children to want to be healthy, but what are the consequences for those kids who currently are not? My own four-year old is proud to show off knowledge gained in school about how terrible it is to eat unhealthy foods (while, just a minute later, he refuses the broccoli we offer and begs for a fruit snack). Our kids know, at increasingly young ages, that eating healthy and being overweight is “bad.” Even if the shame in obesity is more about caring for your health and less about looks (at least for the youngest kids), there’s no doubt that we’re presenting the anti-model without unpacking the complex causes of the childhood obesity epidemic.

And importantly, will these ads really work to change behavior, or at least, affect attitudes? Perhaps they will make their viewers uncomfortable, and even angry. But in the aftermath, maybe families will take stock of their habits. On the other hand, this approach could open the door for many other ads that stigmatize the children who have become obese (again, because of a host of complex factors). This campaign could, as its critics contend, convey a less-than-flattering image of overweight kids that may be hard to combat on the playground, or in the classroom. Or maybe, the seemingly authentic fears and tears of these children will make us sympathize with them. The only thing missing from these ads: some solutions that empower kids, not just expose them.