In an effort to turn September's Childhood Obesity Awareness Month into Stop Childhood Obesity Month, a new, in-your-face billboard, television and radio ad campaign, called Strong4Life, hopes to wake people up to the skyrocketing rate of childhood obesity in Georgia. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, designer of the campaign, calls the approach “tough love,” but with slogans such as “Fat kids become fat adults,” some are left wondering if the ads will hurt the very kids the campaign is trying to help.
The stark, black-and-white multimedia campaign includes television ads featuring overweight children talking about being picked on at school or how they are scared because they were diagnosed with hypertension. At their conclusion the ads say, “Stop sugarcoating it Georgia.” Billboards popping up all around metro-Atlanta show some of the same kids with messages like, “Warning: Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid.”
According to a 2009 report by Trust in America’s Health, more than 20 percent of Georgia’s children are overweight, the second-worst percentage in the country, only barely trailing behind Mississippi. In the South, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi all have child obesity rates of more than 20 percent. Oregon boasts the fewest overweight children with a 9.6 percent child obesity rate.
Overweight children face a host of medical conditions, says Carolina Cruxent, Director of Wellness Marketing at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta; conditions like hypertension, fatty liver disease and Type 2 diabetes.
“These ads are intended to raise awareness of this health crisis among parents and caregivers,” Cruxent said, “so that we may all come together to work toward a solution.”
The campaign, dubbed Strong4Life, is a community effort, Cruxent said. Children’s has partnered with Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta, the YMCA and the Georgia Department of Public Health with a goal of moving Georgia out of the top 10 states in childhood obesity rankings in five years.
Children’s will help families adopt the long-term change needed, she said. “We’ll make a difference in kids’ lives, and our programs will serve as a model for southern states in addressing the childhood obesity epidemic.”
Not everyone believes the campaign is using the right strategy. Peggy Howell, Public Relations Director for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), calls the ads “extraordinarily harmful” to overweight kids.
“Labeling a person of any age as obese,” she said, "especially a child or adolescent -- is strongly pejorative and counterproductive.”
Howell says the more often weight is talked about, the more likely teens are to adopt dangerous dieting behaviors that could lead to eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, citing a 2006 study by the University of Minnesota. NAAFA, she says, supports the “Health at Every Size” practices that encourage healthy eating habits and physical activity. NAAFA, Howell says, believes the Strong4Life campaign is approaching an important issue from the wrong angle.
“NAAFA,” she said, “challenges the Georgia Children’s Health Alliance to create an advertising campaign that encourages people of all sizes to eat healthy food, add movement to our lives and celebrate our differences.”
According to Cruxent, Children’s is already promoting healthy lifestyles through free community festivals such as Strong4Life Atlanta. The “tough love” approach is just the beginning. But, she says raising awareness is the critical first step because parents often don’t see the problem. In fact, research by Children’s found that 75 percent of parents of overweight children do not recognize their child as overweight.
“Despite the magnitude of the problem, there is little acknowledgment of the crisis,” she said.
So what can parents do to help their children live healthy, happy lives?
If you think your child is overweight, consult your pediatrician, Cruxent said. But parents should always encourage healthy eating habits and active play.