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Are Stigmatizing Obesity Campaigns Effective?

fat shadowLast week, one of the first studies to systematically look at what kind of health messaging works best found that campaigns recognized for stigmatizing or blaming obese people are perceived as no more effective than more positive or neutral campaigns. In fact, the advice of negative campaigns was deemed to be less achievable. The study was published online in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The study by researchers at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University included a representative sample of 1,085 men and women. One group viewed words and pictures from 10 campaigns that had been criticized as stigmatizing obese people. A second group viewed 10 other campaigns that contained more neutral content.

The stigmatizing campaigns included New York's ad against sugary drinks, where the video showed a person’s hand pouring body fat out of a soda into a glass; and Chubby Kids by the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, where overweight children are talking about the negative stigma they encounter.

Neutral or positive campaigns include images of water for “rethink your drink” by the Centers for Disease Control and a smiling overweight girl with text on making children strong for life by the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. These campaigns in general did not use the words “obesity” or “obese” or “warning” or “don’t.”

Participants rated campaigns for motivational impact, being able to take the actions advised in a campaign, and appropriateness of the campaigns’ pictures. 

When it came to peoples believing that they could make the change – self-efficacy – it was the neutral and positive campaigns they judged most effective. Overall, there was no difference in instilling motivation between the types of campaigns. This is after the researchers adjusted for variables that might affect perception, including their weight, age and history of dieting.

Images that showed neutral items like healthy foods as opposed to obese people also were perceived as less blaming and more motivational.


Source: Rebecca Puhl, Joerg Luedicke, Jamie Lee Peterson. "Public Reactions to Obesity-Related Health Campaigns: A Randomized Controlled Trial." July 2013, Vol. 45, No. 1

Published on June 26, 2013

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