Soft Control

In 2008, Christopher Gildemeister wrote in his article for the Parents Television Council,

Today, smoking is much rarer on television, and with a very few exceptions is done only by unsympathetic or disreputable characters. So stigmatized has cigarette smoking become that it is the butt of humor and satire. The Simpsons consistently mocks cigarette smoking and advertising.

At a certain point in the American cultural continuum, smokers were hit with the old one-two punch of vilification and ridicule. Compassionate people operate on an old-fashioned standard that used to be called “Hate the sin but love the sinner.”

In contrast, the current culture seems to have no tolerance for nuance, and goes straight to demonization. Some smokers are quite emotionally invested in not being demonized. They become paranoid, defensive, and balky.

The Food and Drug Administration was empowered to regulate the tobacco industry, via the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009. It is just the sort of pesky governmental interference that many people resent. Large numbers of Americans resist being ruled, whether by nature (their personality) or by nurture (the political beliefs they have absorbed).

Public relations — it’s complicated

To borrow a slogan, “When smoking is villainized, only villains will smoke.” Negative campaigning can backfire, because people admire and identify with villains. Moviegoers cheer for a bad guy with redeeming qualities, or a cop who breaks all the rules.

Any effort at persuasion through public relations can fail if it is perceived as shaming. Smokers are made to understand that they are pariahs, shunned and disparaged, herded into separate areas of space, ostentatiously coughed at, unremittingly admonished by signage, and so on. Discriminating against people by treating them as socially unacceptable is a form of bullying, and we are all supposed to be against bullying. So, now what?

Public health campaigns presided over by celebrities can be particularly grotesque. Those “kids today” know enough about everybody’s private lives and public mistakes to ration out their credence sparingly. Now, as in Shakespeare’s day, the young hate bogosity. They may suspect that any famous person who delivers anti-smoking or anti-drinking propaganda was probably ordered to by a judge, to atone for some impulsive escapade.

Public health campaigns that rely on stigmatization can backfire, in two different ways. People might react angrily, “Get out of my life.” Or they might experience the “Maybe I’ll just get out of my own life” reaction. Stigmatization makes them feel so bad they give up and don’t even bother trying to quit. Word gets around that shaming might not be the ideal approach.

On an individual level, a child might overeat because she or he knows how much it upsets a parent, and by the child’s reckoning, that parent has done something bad enough to deserve retaliation. Such a misguided emotional response is apt to scale up. When the government gets involved with a seemingly private matter like body weight, it provokes the deep-seated outlaw impulses that drive some personalities.

(To be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “TV Stubs Out Smoking,”, 2008
Photo on Visualhunt

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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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