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June 18, 2013 | 3 minute read

Study: Stigmatizing Obesity Campaigns Not More Effective than Others

hw-drink02-300x250The health problems stemming from obesity have inspired campaigns nationwide, all trying to encourage the two-thirds of Americans who are overweight or obese to achieve a healthy weight, which would help reduce the risk of seven cancers.

But getting people to modify eating and activity behaviors can be tricky.

Last week, one of the first studies to systematically look at what kind of 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 cross-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 ads 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 includes images of water for a “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 (1) motivational impact, (2) being able to take the actions advised in a campaign and (3) appropriateness of the campaigns’ pictures.


When it came to people’s 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.

The bottom line: This study offers important insights into how carefully health messages need to be handled to achieve good results. “Concern about obesity stigmatization…may impair weight-loss efforts and potentially lead to increased weight gain,” the authors cite in the article introduction.

Here’s one part of the campaign on Stop Childhood Obesity that received responses for stigmatizing kids from The Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Strong4Life campaign.

Here’s a more positive ad, also from Strong4Life campaign.

What do you think?

One comment on “Study: Stigmatizing Obesity Campaigns Not More Effective than Others

  1. Arissa Anderson on

    I think sustainable, health-promoting behavior change is all about self-efficacy, and these positive ads seem to do a fantastic job of promoting to viewers the idea that “if they can do it, I can do it!” Let’s continue to empower ourselves and others through positive messaging.


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