Category Archives: Advertising

The Conundrum of Caving to the Food Industry in the Battle Against Obesity

I just wanted to bring your attention to an excellent piece by Kelly Brownell of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, in which she addresses the perilous slippery slope of appeasing the food industry and how that specifically impacts our fight against obesity.

He points out that all the research of calories in versus calories out, increasing exercise, cutting sodium, sugar, and fat, the problems with cutting physical activity from the daily routine of children, the abundant prevalence of fast food, and the cost of healthy, organic alternatives has been well and good – but that we are purposely avoiding and not addressing one of the biggest challenges in combating the increasing waistlines in America. The total avoidance of tackling head-on the way food is marketed, made, sold, and how quickly even healthcare organizations in need of a little extra cash may take a sponsorship or donation from a group directly contributing to many of the health issues that organization is tackling.

I know we live in a capitalist society. I know that the element most prized in this economic system is a competitive market and that supporters think private enterprise should be able to do whatever it likes in terms marketing and aggressive behavior towards consumers and that the individual is supposed to be able to make an independent choice. I also think that’s ridiculous. To assume that someone’s behavior is not influenced by the massive inundation of public messages, no matter how smart they are, disproves years of communication and sociological research. I always find it amusing when major corporations or businesses decry critics who say that advertising is harmful and misleading, when in fact most corporations and businesses are counting exactly on that – that the constant (and often subliminal, or in the least, very sly) messages they’re strategically slinging at us all the time are working their magic and ensuring that people will take the bait. As a critic of many advertising practices, a supporter of progressive paternalism (known to those on the opposite side of the aisle as a nanny state), and someone who has worked with people trying to change a range if disordered eating behaviors and poor nutrition habits, I found her piece particularly compelling and in agreement with her claim that the food industry has had plenty of time to prove itself trustworthy.

I think this line really sums it up: “When the history of the world’s attempt to address obesity is written, the greatest failure may be collaboration with and appeasement of the food industry. I expect history will look back with dismay on the celebration of baby steps industry takes (such as public–private partnerships with health organizations, “healthy eating” campaigns, and corporate social responsibility initiatives) while it fights viciously against meaningful change (such as limits on marketing, taxes on products such as sugared beverages, and regulation of nutritional labeling).”

Check it out.

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Filed under Advertising, Health Education, Media, Public Health

Shame Won’t Make You Healthy. Really.

Some of you public health and social marketing gurus have likely already come across the recent slew of ads in Georgia, published by an organization called Strong4Life, that are ostensibly part of an effort to curb childhood obesity. A lofty goal, indeed, but a misguided approach, the criticisms of which have already begun. The images are pictures of overweight and obese children with a variety of captions, including “It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not,” and “Fat may be funny to you, but it’s killing me,” and “Fat prevention begins at home. And the buffet line.”

Shaming rarely works as a strategy for behavior change. It’s been shown in efforts ranging from drug use behavior to HIV-prevention goals and marketing campaigns. If you click on the images in the Strong4Life campaign you get taken to video spots of these children, who seem burdened by sadness and depression (which can be both causes of and side effects of being overweight – exacerbating these emotional states does not help in weight loss endeavors). Recognizing if one is at an unhealthy weight is an essential step towards healthy weight loss, but the children do not appear buoyed by information, support, and new ideas on ways to be healthy. They seem downtrodden and embarrassed, the very characteristics that a shaming and body-bullying culture easily pounce on and cultivate. The video of Bobby, which portrays a mother who appears shamed by her son’s question doesn’t make me want to hit the gym or eat a platter of vegetables. Instead, the voyeuristic quality of the mock confessions feels more than a bit exploitative and it triggers a gut reaction of sympathy and protectiveness, making me want to yank the camera from the hands of Strong4Life. It’s like they took a message from the Jillian Michaels’ school of adding insult to injury, splashing in an additional dose of fear and intimidation, and expecting that this will result in a lifelong substantial increase in meaningful self-esteem.

The well-developed criticisms of this campaign point out that not only does shaming and negative marketing not induce healthy behavior change, but that these ads do nothing educationally. One girl near-tearfully admits that she gets made fun of at school because she’s fat, and the video slams down a tag line of “being fat takes all the fun out of being a kid” before fading out. While the Strong4Life campaign has a “Get Started” tab offering facts about nutrition and screen time and physical activity, the impact of the original image has already been made. Advertising relies on quick one-liners, on stark imagery, and emotional reactions. In this case, what we see is a tag line reiterating that this girl is not a normal kid, a solitary image of an overweight girl connected to an emotional plea on her part of loneliness and victimization. It’s powerful all right, but not empowering. The ad emphasizes fat loss, heightening the importance placed on size, instead of cultivating an interest in healthy lifestyles and appreciation of the fact that people come in different sizes and can be equally healthy. Critics of the appreciation-of-all-sizes approach say it borders on supporting obesity, which I see as short-sighted. Very high weight status can certainly indicate other problems, like diabetes, early heart and respiratory problems, and difficulties engaging in physical activity. But it’s also essential to make sure that the message that larger sizes are universally unhealthy is quashed, and it’s vital to promote instead that appreciating people of all sizes is essential – and more importantly, that valuing people regardless of size is a priority. This is a topic that deserves that kind of nuance.  I would welcome ads that excitedly show kids engaging in active lifestyles, enjoying sports and enjoying healthy, full diets – creating characters in ads that viewers want to emulate, as opposed to characters that viewers are meant to distance themselves from or who are meant to be repelling, is not only good business sense but inclusive and supportive. These ads further emphasize and underscore the cultural norm categories of “normal weight kids are normal” and “overweight kids are not normal and therefore not ok” – this certainly won’t help curb teasing or bullying in this arena. And since we do know that consistent, positive social support is one of the key factors in healthy behavior change, it’s obvious why public health experts met this series with skepticism. And here’s what else we know – healthy lifestyle changes significantly decrease mortality, regardless of baseline body mass index. Changes in fitness level are what alter all-cause mortality, not changes in BMI.

The response that these ads are cultivating “important conversation” is somewhat moot. It may get people talking, and it hopefully it will encourage media platforms with a larger audience than this blog to come out with constructive, evidence-based, supportive tips and strategies for a healthy lifestyle – but the fact remains that these ads are contributing to the negative, body-shaming noise that fuels so much of popular media and it remains that the effect can be really damaging and counter-productive at the outset. Individuals who ultimately are successful at losing large amounts of unhealthy weight (or who more consistently use condoms, for example) do so not merely because someone called them fat (or because they knew someone who became infected with HIV) – this has happened many times over to individuals seeking or needing to enact behavior change. The change happens because they not only begin to see themselves as deserving of these changes, but also because they become helpfully informed with concrete action steps that help move them through behavior change, are supported and consistently cheered on, and because they know what to do if they feel themselves slipping.

The bottom line is that discussions about healthy living need to happen to prevent long-term chronic health problems, and these conversations do need to happen early. But they shouldn’t start with shaming, embarrassment, or the putting on display of children who have weight problems and asking them to broadcast what’s so horrible about it while telling them that their love of the buffet is what got them to this point. We can do better.


Filed under Advertising, Child Development and Child Health, Education, Health Education, Media

Thanks, KMart

…for making sure I didn’t actually take a few days off this holiday week!

What a charming little undergarment you were planning on selling to the masses this Black Friday:

Courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald

Every 7 year-old girl needs a thong (like, I could end the sentence there!), an article of clothing designed for the sole purpose of sexually exciting others, that also broadcasts to the world that they’re diggin’ for gold before they’re even old enough to have a checking account of their own.

The perfect holiday gift for your first grader. The message that baring their buns will be rewarded with a wealthy partner. Cheers! And happy holidaze.

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Filed under Advertising, Child Development and Child Health, Feminism, Sexism

How Images and Ads Impact Self-Image and Human Development

I got a lot of traffic and messages about my recent post regarding Duke Nukem. People in the gaming community condemned it for its lack of originality, how it strayed from the original premise of apparently ostensibly mocking the ’80s action-hero genre, and how it overall disappointed those who are used to more complex and engaging videos. Some replies also included people needing to “get over it” when discussing images of coerced sexual activity or the game’s encouragement of merging violent and sexually explicit content together (I don’t post comments that are condescending or don’t encourage dialogue), something I found…disturbing. My initial argument, however, did not change – that is, that the imagery and the actions the gamer supposes in this video are tragically abusive and in fact detrimental to both men and women.

Many gamers also respond that they know when they are playing a game, and that their non-virtual socializing is not impacted by the game’s content. This, along with the recent news that the American Medical Association finally condemned the use of photoshopping in advertising campaigns and photo shoots, got me thinking about what repeated exposure to images and actions actually does to our brain and with who and what we identify.

A well-known study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that repeated exposure to images and advertisements ultimately were processed in people the same way actual experiences were processed. That is, if you see or watch something enough times – in a video game, in a fashion magazine in which models are photoshopped to near obscurity, in a parent abusing your sibling – you begin to process it as though it was you yourself experiencing the act and identify with the “player” (model, game character) you are watching. You see enough pictures of a model like this:


And you begin to think you are supposed to align yourself with her, that this image is what is normal (the image on the right was criticized heavily in 2009 for being so drastically photoshopped). After so many exposures, you begin to mold yourself after her, to think that since this is how we project women for adoration in our culture, that you should begin appropriating yourself to match her image. Just like a gamer, after so many exposures, can begin to mold themselves after the image of the character they are impersonating in a game. And while they may not go out on a shooting spree, they are desensitized to the effects of that reality, just as they are desensitized to the effects of coerced sex in a game, which can lead to difficulty distinguishing that from a healthy sexual relationship.

As I have also discussed in previous posts, a foundational theory in behavioral science and education is the Social-Cognitive Theory, which has informed educators and psychologists for years in explaining that people learn by watching, and that even one observation of a behavior can influence perspective. It also importantly points out that while full on adoption of behaviors witnessed may not occur, the more we see, the more our attitudes and beliefs about them change. This can be good and bad. It can make us more accepting of others’ opinions and outlooks, and it can also desensitize and normalize the opinions and behaviors that are harmful.

We’re humans. We learn by watching, by then mimicking and imitating what we observe. It doesn’t happen all at once, which is why fashion moguls or game designers claim they have no real impact. Are girls entering periods of self-mandated starving as soon as they open this month’s Vogue? Are adolescent boys heading to the hills for a sawed off shotgun fight after the first round of Duke or stealing cars after playing the new Grand Theft Auto? No, of course not. But can it impact their sense of compassion, affect their interpersonal relationships? Can it make violence seem less threatening, less damaging, and less impacting than it is? Yes. Can that change the way people behave, from nuance to imitation? Sure. Even researchers who admit that it won’t necessarily turn children violent admit that’s likely true (and, interestingly, still disallow their children to play). Human development takes time – language acquisition, understanding of and the processing of visual messages, being able to comprehend meaning from a block of text – these are all cognitive functions that take years to develop and perfect, and their influence lies in the words and actions of children’s families, friends, teachers. Unfortunately, messages of gender have been largely commandeered by the media. And the repeated exposure, over years, to these specifics of models’ physical appearance has resulted in the erosion of self-confidence that many girls and women – and boys and men – experience as young children becoming adolescents. And the repeated exposure, over years, to the specifics of war, sexual violence, and the presentation of hyper-masculinity, can also result in the erosion of what kind of impact violence truly has, as they become desensitized, and what a healthy understanding of and relationship with the opposite sex is (as opposed to its portrayal in my Duke Nukem piece). As the study articulated, it’s about changing people over time, it’s about how perceptions and perspectives change when a new definition of the norm that is not contested or dissected – a Ralph Lauren model, a Duke Nukem – enters the picture. Women who suffer from eating disorders and body dysmorphia, while not blaming the fashion industry, have emphatically articulated that it certainly has had an impact as it normalized this destructive self-image and behavior.

I think it’s also relevant here to bring up the Supreme Court’s decision about a week ago to shoot down California’s attempt to ban the sale of violent video games to children. Timothy Egan, a Times columnist, had a great commentary on this, noting how ridiculous it seems for there to be a perpetual ban on nudity and sexually explicit images, but not on virtually dismembering a human or sexually assaulting a woman. It does seem…well, more than troubling, that a game in which a player can simulate murder and rape is protected by free speech but a bare breast is the height of vulgarity. (I found a great post from a female gamer about this kind of sexual violence in video games, and I agree with her assertion that sexual expression can in fact exist without it also involving violence and degradation.) I don’t think any of the representations of sexuality that I have seen in video games are appropriate for children because they overwhelmingly associate it with abuse and/or coercion (I’ve done a lot of viewing in the past couple days after my Duke Nukem post). To say that sexuality would have a more harmful impact than violence seems questionable, when representations of both are equally unhealthy.

It should also be said that I am far from someone who believes nudity and sexuality itself is vulgar. I celebrate and support healthy (and protected!) sexual expression in any way the individual consents and desires. I firmly believe that discussions of sex and sexuality should be brought up early on, so children can ask questions, be informed, protect themselves when they do engage in sex, and have an understanding of what a respectful, consensual sexual relationship is. I also believe that when these discussions in families don’t take place, and when sex is a taboo topic, that it is a disservice to these children, and that any confusion they have about sex or uncertainty about what a healthy sex life actually is will be magnified by the messages the media sends them.  I’m an advocate of early onset, comprehensive sexual health and reproductive health education. Sex shouldn’t be confusing, and it shouldn’t be stigmatized. Sexual violence, however, and a misappropriation of the presentation of sexual relationships that are abusive, coercive, and violent, should be condemned.

This is also why a diversity of exposures is important. It’s important to not be inundated with the same message over and over again. Advertisers know that repeated exposure is key to getting people to buy what they want to sell. If you see an image of a Coke bottle once, it won’t register with much impact. If you see it every time your favorite TV show breaks for commercial, when you’re leafing through the pages of a magazine, when you’re driving down a freeway and it’s up on a billboard, when you’re listening to the radio and it breaks for the Coke jingle – it adds up, as do afternoons in front of a game console, as do hours reading “women’s” magazines and fashion spreads, as do episodes of spousal or child abuse, (which we know increases the likelihood of the child being in an abusive relationship him/herself and hampers healthy development – the others are logical extensions, to a lesser degree). We have to have enough positive images, positive games, positive and healthy discourse about relationships to not just equal the stream of negative imagery and messaging, but to overtake it. Positive, healthy messages, not abusive, harmful, violent messages, have to be in the majority. The norm. It’s nice that the docs finally said so.


Filed under Advertising, Child Development and Child Health, Defining Gender, Feminism, Gender Stereotyping, Media, Mental Health, Pop Culture, Public Health, Sexism, Violence