Obesity is a dirty word: Study looks at what works in anti-obesity campaigns, and it’s not telling people they’re fat

What about those anti-obesity ads? Is anyone listening? If so, is anyone motivated to do better? Might they be offensive to some? Educational? Helpful? Are they working at all? More importantly, why and why not?

Researchers at Yale University‘s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity have stepped into the breach to measure Americans’ attitudes about ads meant to encourage less girth and better nutrition.

According to The Atlantic‘s Lindsay Abrams, the researchers took a nationally representative sample of Americans and asked them to look hard at these highly visible campaigns and their somewhat showy slogans. Abrams writes: “The researchers were interested in knowing what the respondents thought about how informative, motivating, or credible the slogans seemed. They were also curious as to which ads came off as confusing, stigmatizing, or inappropriate. Finally, they asked the respondents whether they intended to follow the messages’ advice.”

The result? Not surprising, really. We want positive reinforcement and reject stigmatizing or otherwise negative messages. Our favorite message of the ones examined? The simple one from First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, “Move Every Day.”  The most positively rated campaigns? “Those focused on encouraging specific health behaviors or actions, like eating fruits and vegetables every day or engaging in physical activity,” said the study’s lead author Rebecca Puhl, “And the most motivating were the ones that made no mention of obesity or weight at all.”

Nobody, researchers found, likes being told that their child’s obesity is their fault or that it is child abuse. Neither do we like being told we’re fat but not told clearly what to do about it. ‘Obesity’ itself is a bad word. “Certainly what we find is when more neutral words are used, like ‘unhealthy weight’ or ‘high BMI’ those are preferred and viewed to be more motivating,” said Puhl. The trick, Abrams writes, is going to be in “figuring out how to be anti-obesity without being anti-obese people” — and boiling these issues down to a slogan is difficult to do. (Read more)

You might also be interested in a related Atlantic story about how a Minnesota “anti-obesity” campaign lies in that gray area between educating and shaming. To read the story and view the videos of the ads, go here.

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