Harming vs. Helping: The Effects of Obesity Prevention Campaign Messaging

Behaviour Change ObesityThere’s no question that obesity is a global concern: last year in Canada alone, roughly 5.3 million adults reported height and weight that classified them as obese. Men scored at 21.8%, an increase from 20.1% in 2013 and 16.0% 2003. Among women, the rate of obesity in 2014 (18.7%) was an increase over 2013, and up significantly from 14.5% in 2003. (Stats Can, Overweight and obese adults (self-reported), 2014).

As a result, there have been many public health campaigns targeting obesity prevention and weight-loss, from North America to the UK to Australia and New Zealand. However, although the intention of these campaigns is laudable, it sometimes gets lost in the messaging. This is particularly true when scare tactics such as graphic images and disturbing video clips are used to ‘motivate’ people.

While emotions such as fear and regret have proven to be powerful drivers of behaviour change in many domains, research has found that this does not hold true in the case of obesity. The tricky part with obesity is that it is a complicated condition with many potential causes such as social norms, genetics, diet, environment, socio-economic status, and psychology.

Negative Campaign Messaging

Extensive research on public health campaigns suggest that in some cases, campaigns that intend to promote health instead stigmatize people suffering from obesity. The effect? Those who feel shamed about their excess weight engage in higher calorie intake, unhealthy eating behaviours, binge-eating, and exercise avoidance. Thus, when obesity prevention campaigns take the fear tactic route, they can end up alienating an important part of their target audience.

For example, an Australian campaign called LiveLighter uses a series of short, sharp ads that use fear to drive home the harmful effects of being obese and encourage people to change their lifestyles. Its intention is good, but the message seems misguided, depicting a person's internal organs swimming (drowning?) in toxic fat.

Other messages with negative wording or connotations – many aimed at parents – include:

  • "Childhood obesity is child abuse" - Obesity Prevention Australia, Australia
  • "Chubby kids may not outlive their parents" - (CHOA) Atlanta, Georgia, USA
  • "Fat prevention begins at home. And the buffet line" - Strong4Life, Georgia, USA

Positive Campaign Messaging

Non-stigmatizing messages that consist of themes involving fruit and vegetable consumption and positive health behaviours seem to resonate more with the target audience for obesity prevention and control. Instead of a shaming approach that targets the obese more than obesity itself, positive messaging tends to instill confidence and personal empowerment.

US First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign which targets child obesity, provides parents and children with information to support health choices early in life. The campaign has led to healthier school cafeteria food, increased exercise and healthy choices among America’s youth. Last year the Center for Disease Control reported that the prevalence of obesity in America dropped 43% among young children aged 2-4, between 2004 and 2012.

Other campaigns with motivating and positive messaging include:

  • "Move Everyday!" - Let’s Move, United States (National)
  • "Eat well. Move more. Live longer" - Change4Life, United Kingdom
  • "Take a small step to get healthy" - Small Steps, United States (National)

So Which Approach is More Effective?

Researchers at Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity stepped in to measure Americans' actual attitudes about ads meant to encourage healthier eating and lifestyle habits. They took a nationally representative sample of Americans and asked them to assess a variety of highly visible campaign slogans in an online survey. They wanted to know what the respondents thought about the campaigns: how informative, motivating, or credible the slogans seemed, and if they came off as confusing, stigmatizing, or inappropriate.

Here are the results:

  • Messages involving eating fruits and vegetables every day or engaging in physical activity were widely accepted
  • Messages that implied personal responsibility and blame for excess weight received more negative ratings
  • Messages that instilled confidence and personal empowerment received more positive ratings
  • The most motivating messages were those that made no mention of obesity or weight at all

This clearly shows that people are more open to messages such as improving lifestyle and focusing on health rather than scare tactics and direct references to ‘being fat’ and its consequences. It further illustrates that obesity campaign messaging is better received when the focus is on empowerment rather than stigmatization.

Effective Obesity-Related Messaging

According to the UK Faculty of Public Health (2006), some of the following best practices for obesity-related messaging include:

  • Using ‘could happen’ rather than ‘will happen’ when discussing negative consequences to instill hope for change
  • Avoiding direct references to the words ‘obesity’ and ‘weight’
  • Avoiding using the word ‘fat’, which has a very negative connotation and can be perceived as shaming
  • Using clear, simple language (for example, define what overweight means so people can understand)

Want to learn how to use obesity prevention messaging in your own campaign? Contact Redbird for more information.