The Simple Facts Can Be Hard To Swallow

Switching stations, I heard Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s distinctive New York accent layered on a base of Boston on the radio yesterday, and he was in fine pugilistic form: "What do you want to do? Do you want to have people lose their legs or do you want to show them what happens so that they won't lose their legs? Take your poison. Which do you want? You can't have it both ways. Do you want to help people or do you not want to annoy people?”

Having come in at the end of Rich Lamb’s report, I thought Bloomberg might be defending the practice of rounding up homeless people on frigid nights but I see in Ad Age this morning that he was referring to a New York City Health Dept. ad showing an overweight man sitting on a stool. One leg is cut off at the knee; crutches are propped up behind him. There is also a “then” and “now” graphic showing the increasing size of beverage cups served in generic fast-food joints over the years.




The ad is drawing fire from “some people,” Age’s Ken Wheaton reports, although “It's unclear who ‘some people’ are.”

Both Age and CBSinvite comments, but they are surprisingly thin and predictably on both side of controversy. Maybe it’s too early; maybe people are weary of the topic. Scare-tactic ads have been roundly discredited over the years. Just Google “Do scare tactic ads work?” and you’ll get a medley of reasons why they generally don’t for everything from meth use to HIV prevention.  

While acknowledging portion control as “an important piece of the solution to obesity," the American Beverage Association says the ad, and others in New York City’s campaign, create an "inaccurate picture" of the impact of soft drinks,” reports Reuters’ Jonathan Allen.

"Instead of utilizing scare tactics, the beverage industry is offering real solutions like smaller-portioned containers and new calorie labels that show the number of calories in the full container, right up front, to help people choose products and sizes that are right for them and their families," according to ABA spokesman Stefan Friedman.

On the other hand, the ads do get people talking about topics that are not readily apparent or that we’d generally prefer to ignore. The increase in portion sizes is a major contributor to overeating. Surely you’ve seen stories about the increase in the size of the dinner plates we pull out of our own kitchen cabinets every night, and studies about how we eat more when we serve ourselves more.

Similarly, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta is under fire for a TV and billboard campaign that features “stark black-and-white images of overweight children sharing bold and often uncomfortable messages,” Carrie Teegardin reports in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Children’s Healthcare feels it needs a campaign that wakes people up, but critics say the ads “will further ostracize” kids who are overweight. “Stop the shame, shocking statistics, and scare tactics and start offering these kids and their parents suggestions and solutions,” says one online reaction cited by Teegardin.

My email box has been flooded over the past month with pitches from publicists for celebrity trainers, gurus, shrinks, medical doctors and just about anybody else who ever had claimed success reversing a creeping bulge of the belly. It happens every year about this time, of course. Then, like the ads for Equinox, Jenny Craig, et al., it all goes away by spring, along with people’s resolutions to work out at least three times a week. The worst of the emails offer instant gratification.

What does a pitch like this, which shall remain anonymous, say about our culture of quick fixes?: “Before now, trying to get rid of ‘love handles’ or a ‘pudgy paunch’ meant liposuction or a strenuous exercise regimen. How about losing them in a quick, one-hour procedure performed in a medical clinic with no down time!”

Rare is the solution that addresses the often complex underlying reasons for weight gain that everybody knows has a “simple” solution: Expend more calories than you consume. If you’re crafting a marketing campaign that involves a product that is actually part of the solution to our obesity crises, I recommend two recent articles that explore the physiological and psychological intricacies involved in the actual process of not only losing weight but also keeping it off.

In a New Year’s Day cover story in the New York Times magazine titled “The Fat Trap,” Tara Parker-Pope uses her perplexity over her own inability to keep weight off despite everything she knows about the benefits of staying in shape (she is editor of the “Well” blog at the Times) and the fact that she has always gotten her exercise in — including completing a marathon.

“Anyone who has ever dieted knows that lost pounds often return, and most of us assume the reason is a lack of discipline or a failure of willpower,” Parker-Pope writes.

Simply put, it’s far more complicated that just saying no.

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Melinda Beck’s “Health Journal” column asks: “Is Your Personality Making You Put on Pounds?”

“A growing body of research is finding intriguing connections between personality traits and habits that can lead to obesity. The same parts of the brain that control emotions and stress response also govern appetite, several studies have shown,” Beck writes. “Early life experiences also set the stage for overeating years later, researchers have found.”

But understanding that compulsive eating may have underlying psychological, emotional, physiological and/or genetic contributing causes does not mean that we should sit on our fat duffs and accept our “fates.” Portion control does matter. What and how much we eat matter. And staying fit matters. Both aerobic and resistance exercise should be a key component in any weight control program, Richard Keeler, Ph.D., former program director of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, frequently reminds me. Lean muscle mass demands more energy (a/k/a calories) than fat, which just stores it.

How to get honest and credible “this-is-going-to-be-good-for-you” messages across without alienating the people who need to hear them is the billion-dollar question. Writing in Together, a bimonthly newspaper for people in recovery from substance use disorders (the article is not online, alas), former public relations executive Richard Truitt writes: “It’s difficult to convince others –- putting it bluntly -– that we are right and they just haven’t gotten there yet.

“We’re not about to reach that goal until we convince them that what we have to offer is what they wanted all along,” he concludes, “or would have wanted if they had looked at things the way we figured it from the beginning.”

Sometimes, he suggests, simple facts don’t do the trick.

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