Using Discomfort as a Tool for Change

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Have you ever seen or heard an ad that really rubbed you the wrong way? Did it rub you the wrong way because you knew it was true, but didn’t want to acknowledge it, or did you truly find it offensive? The Strong4Life campaign, an anti-obesity ad campaign that ran in Georgia several years ago, spurred much controversy by publishing ads featuring obese children with headlines such as, “Fat Kids Become Fat Adults,” “Big Bones Didn’t Make Me This Way; Big Meals Did,” and “It’s Hard to Be a Little Girl If You’re Not.”

Critics argued that the campaign offered no solution to the problem and employed inappropriate shock tactics, but Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, which co-founded the Strong4Life campaign, intended for the ads to be controversial. The goal was to help parents recognize the severity of the obesity epidemic in Georgia. And they were done trying to “sugarcoat” the problem.

The ads didn’t run for long, but conversations regarding the campaign continued online and in media coverage worldwide for quite some time. This only added to the debate over what makes an ad effective. If people are still talking about the campaign today, I’d argue that all publicity is good publicity. The controversial nature of the campaign certainly got people talking about the subject, which certainly seems like a first step toward combating childhood obesity.

I agree with Maya Walters, a teenager with high blood pressure who appeared in one of the ads, who said, “It’s very provocative and makes people uncomfortable, but it’s when people are uncomfortable that change comes.” Based on what I’ve learned about advertising and social marketing both through formal education and personal experience, what Maya stated proves true more often than not. Shock value that leads to discomfort doesn’t work for everything, but in this case, I think it truly encourages change.

As a New York Times article commenting on the issue stated, “The problems that obese children face, like hypertension and bullying, won’t be lessened by ignoring them” (Georgia’s Tough Campaign Against Childhood Obesity, KJ Dell’Antonia, 6/3/12).  Because in many cases, addressing obesity is something individuals can tackle with a commitment to lifestyle changes, the ads weren’t targeting and attacking people for something they could not change. Rather, they were designed to inspire people to begin making changes that may ultimately save their lives.

I can’t speak for other people, but often for me, feeling a little guilty about my choices and where they’ve led me serves as powerful motivation for making changes for the better.

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