Tag Archives: advertising

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

Looking for More Attention? Drop Some lbs.

At least that’s what Skinny Water is promising in their latest advertisement, which I spotted yesterday. The ad shows a woman facing a throng of cameramen snapping her picture, elegant earrings dropping to the top of the headline which says: “Skinny Always Gets the Attention.” Take a look:

Thinspiration, thanks to Skinny Water

A close-up, to see all the text:

Close-up, for good measure.

Below the headline and photo of the various flavors, it also says “Zero calories, Zeor sugar, Zero Carbs, Zero Guilt.” With all that’s not in this water, you might wonder what it does offer. The website tells me that depending on the flavor of water, they’ve added vitamins B3, B5, B6, B12, C, A, and E. They’ve also thrown in magnesium, folic acid, calcium and/or potassium.

Despite trying to market itself as healthy, Skinny Water is instead perpetrating the cultural message that the best – nay, only – way to ensure that you get attention is by being skinny. This of course positions them well to try to push their product on those women who have been pulled into this lie. This ad tells us that the best way to skinny is not through healthy food choices and exercise and an understanding of what “skinny” means for our particular body type and shape, but essentially through fasting – which is what zero calorie drinks are the equivalent of.

In fact, Skinny Water is doing precisely the opposite of what a health-conscious company and product should be doing. Promoting the idea that those who are skinny deserve attention more than those who are not creates communities that support harmful diet-related behaviors and disordered eating for the goal of a wispy appearance . Not to mention reinforcing the ever-present undercurrent of disapproval of those who are overweight – or even normal weight! – and do not bow to the hierarchy of beauty that says those who are thin are the best. It’s just one more item in the laundry list of products that tell women their size and appearance are what is most important and will attract loyal friends and fans.

In defiance of that, let’s use our brains to remind ourselves why Skinny Water is wrong. While the website details the added vitamins and dietary minerals of each drink, it’s far better to get your needed supplements through a healthy diet rich in cruciferous  and dark and leafy vegetables, fruits, whole grain and lean proteins. Washed down, in fact, by regular old water that keeps you hydrated and helps your body process and absorb nutrients. Skinny Water is telling its buyers that by adding these vitamins and minerals to their product, one can cut out food entirely and survive on a calorie-free but vitamin-rich manipulated water diet. Don’t be fooled! (I know you aren’t. Hopefully, you’re equally horrified.) For example, the“Power,” “Sport” and “Fit” drinks are all fortified with calcium, magnesium, and potassium – to help activate metabolic enzymes, keep your blood regulated, and support strong bones and teeth. Do you know what else can do that?  Bananas, yogurt, kale, almonds and cashews, and quinoa. Frankly, there seems to be little difference between the “Power,” “Sport” and “Fit” drinks despite the claim that they each support different “goals” of the drinker – which lends support to the conclusion that these are madly marketed products that don’t substitute a healthy, well-rounded diet and instead are capitalizing on the now-entrenched notion that women care more about being skinny than anything else.

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Filed under Education, Feminism, Health Education, Media, Public Health, Sexism, Women's Health

Sexist and Sexualized Advertising: On the Rise

A new study released by University of Buffalo sociologists discovered something truly ground-breaking: there has been an undeniable and increasing hyper-sexualiztion of images of women in popular media over the last several decades.

This is something that I would normally take notice of and file alongside the slew of reports that have similar conclusions and continue to confirm what I’ve always felt to be true about advertising and media presentations of women. Being a major theme of my blog, I occasionally worry that I’m Not Tired Yet will begin to sound like a broken record as I continue to write about how damaging media portrayals of women and girls truly are, and how it impacts human development, sense of self-worth, and definitions of beauty for both sexes.

That being said, as long as women and girls continue to be hyper-sexualized in images, videos, and advertisements, there have to be just as many consistent criticisms of them. Creating a chorus of opposition that shows growing girls this is not normal, not healthy, and that they have much, much more to offer than what our culture’s media is telling them they do through a ceaseless blasting bullhorn.

In this particular study, researchers’ conclusions did offer a concrete example of gender disparity in this realm. While representations of men and women have become increasingly sexualized, it was the intensity of the sexualization of women which was particularly shocking and far exceeded that of men. A scale was developed to rate the intensity of the level of sexualization of images, which showed evidence of women being far more likely to be in positions of submission or of offering pleasure as tools of hetero-male sexual desire. This sets a dangerous precedent – women are those who satisfy, men are those who are satisfied.

In the grand scheme of things, media not only influences our decisions and impacts our thinking, but is a reflection of these things as well – it’s a circuitous pattern of reinforcement and ever-heightening intensity. The more these images are sexualized, then the more it is socially expected for women to act as sexualized as they are portrayed, then the more sexualized the images become, building upon themselves as viewers need increasingly overt sexualization to feel excited or as though advertisements are pushing boundaries – which is what advertisements do to draw in a receptive audience. This causes two immediately obvious problems – first, that this pattern leads one down a path that ends in unquestioned and irrelevant nudity and commodification of the sexual identity of girls;  secondly, we move farther and farther away from the objections that this kind of imagery is entirely inappropriate, sexist, pedophilic, and harmful.

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to guest speak on a radio show about the effects of sexualization and violence in video games and media. One of the last questions the host asked me was, “So, what’s the solution? Should we censor these video games and movies?”

My response to this was no, of course I am against censorship. The free speech I advocate protects the video game developers (and advertisers, fashion labels, films, etc etc) as well as my criticism of them – which I will stop as soon as I see the egregious violence against women, forced sex acts and trivialization of women stop. That being said, there is an element of self-censorship — editing, if you will — that could certainly happen on the part of the creators. Until the developers want to change the games, they aren’t going to change – which is why I said that the ‘solution’ as it stands is keeping up the constant conversation, the constant writing, the constant research, that refutes the idea that these games (images, advertisements, movies, etc etc, that send the same messages) are just harmless entertainment. We know they aren’t. But the games (images, advertisements, movies, etc etc) keep selling and people keep buying because it’s seen as normal, and the media’s bottom line – $$ – is different than that of a parent, educator, coach, sibling, etc, who have concerns (hopefully) centered around the health of their children. So the ‘solution’ is to keep up the commentary, keep up the research, keep up the discussions about why these media messages are harmful, and ensure that parents, teachers, siblings, and, of course, anyone who are concerned about healthy children growing into healthy adults, are aware of why media matters and the kind of influence it is having.

Curbing the effects of non-stop media is difficult, but not impossible, and involves even more talking – this time directed at the kids. Getting media to change its tactics can feel damn near impossible, but keeping up a constant dialogue with children about the kind of messages they’re on the receiving end of can certainly help.

In the end, it comes down to what kind of society we want to cultivate – for us and our future generations. The kind of culture we want to look upon as having created – the definitions of gender, success, individual expression, and love – and having fostered. Is it one in which the bottom line is comprised strictly of financial and monetary goals, with little regard as to what happens to members of our communities and how our actions impact children and youth in pursuit of that goal? Or the opposite?

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Filed under Child Development and Child Health, Defining Gender, Feminism, Media, Pop Culture, Sexism

Yes, Summer’s Eve has Bad Marketing. And the Product is Terrible for You.

In light of all the on-point criticism of the ridiculous feminine hygiene ads and how they portray a woman’s relationship with her reproductive organs, I think we should point out a couple things.

First, douching is actually not good for you – it disrupts the balance of good versus not so good bacteria, which maintains a certain acidity level and in turn is key to a healthy vagina. Douching can destroy this careful equilibrium, causing an over-growth of the bad bacteria. This can lead to yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis; both of which are uncomfortable and cause symptoms that are more disruptive than the non-existent issues one thought they were getting rid of in the first place. More dangerously, douching can actually force unhealthy bacteria up into the uterus and ovaries, which if untreated can lead to Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). This, more disturbingly, can cause infertility issues. While this may be rare, why risk the possibility by doing something that is unnecessary at best, but very damaging at worst?

The Summer’s Eve website has an “education” section, which does point out that some regular discharge is normal and offers some good snippets about the importance of wearing 100% cotton underwear. However, in their advice about yeast infections, they include “don’t sit around in a wet bathing suit,” “eat berries and yogurt often,” “don’t wear tight-fitting, non-breathable clothes,” and “eat less sugar,” concluding the list with “use pH-balanced washes formulated for the vaginal area.” Up to that last point, the list was fairly on target. In fact, the list I’ve gotten from my gyno every year has read very much the same with the exception of that last line. In fact, their advice has always been along the lines of: “do not use washes formulated for the vaginal area, even if they say they are pH-balanced, because your body balances that pH like a pro on its own.” Summer’s Eve says their products have been dermatologist and gynecologist tested – not only would I be interested in what that test entailed, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the conclusion was along the lines of “this isn’t going to kill you, no, but…” Especially since the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists as a body of physicians do not recommend douching. I am more inclined to trust them than a Summer’s Eve label.

Interestingly, the site does admit that the vagina is like a “self-cleaning oven.” So…why do I need this product again?

Women and their reproductive organs have thrived for thousands of years. Those reproductive organs have done a remarkably efficient job of cleaning themselves all those years without the “help” of douching projects. It doesn’t take a genius to deduce that these people are trying to tell women that their vagina is supposed to smell like a Laura Ashley store. It’s not. It should look and smell the way it has for centuries. Vaginas have spawned babies for generations without the help of branding and perfume, and it seems the marketing efforts could be better spent educating men and women that the vagina isn’t supposed to be the fertile ground of daisy chain making and delicate blossoms.

Also, referring to your vagina as your “friend down under” seems a bit creepy. It’s not something that has its own personality, its own social life, its own favorite foods and activities. Better to think of it as a part of you, which it is, and the foundation of your holistic health as a woman.

Bottom line – if something seems off down there, swabbing it to make it smell like a field of marigolds is not the right course of action. Seeing your gynecologist is.

p.s. follow me on Twitter here!


Filed under Defining Gender, Feminism, Health Education, Media, Public Health, Reproductive and Sexual Health, Women's Health