Winning Hearts and Minds

In the quest to reverse the global obesity epidemic, the McKinsey Global Institute listed 18 categories of potential intervention, including the public health campaign. Such campaigns are believed to have helped in the decrease of smoking.

The main thing these programs of persuasion have going for them is administrative muscle. When the government supports an idea, it has the power to spread the word through the school system, and through workplaces, and through the media. When public figures mess up, judges can compel them to make pubic service announcements denouncing drunk driving or whatever they got in trouble for.

But while actors, musicians and athletes may influence kids to clean up their act to a certain extent, the relatively few celebrities who deliver health messages are in danger of being hopelessly drowned out by the many who shill for irresponsible corporations, because that’s where the money is.

In terms of more definitive government action, sometimes stigmatization works, as this quotation shows:

Data from smokers in Korea show that guilty feelings were positively and directly related to behavioral intention. The more the participants felt guilty after seeing each announcement, the more likely they were to search for an anti‐smoking public service to help them quit, and the higher their intention to quit smoking.

Culture critic Jeva Lange notes that a study published by The Lancet found that a 2013 Centers for Disease Control public service ad probably caused 100,000 Americans to permanently quit smoking. (Not to bicker, but permanently is a long time, and only a few years have gone by since then.)

In the late 1990s, Lange was part of the young television audience, with whom a simple “smoking is harmful” message did not hit. In addition, the “smoking is not cool” script was less likely to reduce teen smoking than to inspire derisive laughter. This suggests that telling kids not to chow down on junk food because it’s lame, or uncool, or whatever current term applies, is probably ineffective.

Instead, Lange recalls, ads “began to take cues from horror films, using unnatural or murky lighting, distorted sounds, and jarring or disgusting images”:

Imagine the withered lungs of a smoker gasping on your television. Or what happens to blood when tobacco is inhaled. Or a more metaphorical horror — like a fish hook looped through a cheek, or a small demonic man yanking at a mouth. Whatever approach the ad took, it was bound to be deeply and weirdly and uniquely horrifying…

Lange found such messages to be the most terrifying aspect of network television, and affirms that they worked on her, because she has never once even tried a cigarette.

The flip side

Whether instinctively or thanks to adverse personal experience, many Americans are wired to automatically reject any governmental suggestion about how to conduct their personal lives. They tend to discount what they characterize as brainwashing and propaganda, and either ignore the message or actively rebel against it.

So, while a public health campaign might seem brilliant at its conception, the prospects are always iffy. Attempting to make overeating socially unacceptable, like smoking, seems like a good idea, but public relations experts do not always strike the right note. If just conveying the information, “junk food is bad,” were effective, that would be great. But kids have the evidence at hand (and in mouth) to disprove that claim. Who are you going to believe, some strange grownup on TV, or your own taste buds?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Tobacco smoking: From ‘glamour’ to ‘stigma…’,”, 10/09/15
Source: “Anti-smoking ads traumatized me for life,”, 10/04/18
Photo credit: Jennifer Murawski on Visualhunt/CC BY

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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