Shocking Anti-Obesity PSA Sparks Debate

Beth GreenfieldOctober 16, 2014

An anti-obesity campaign video featuring a 300-pound man having a heart attack in the ER as his life of overeating flashes before his eyes is going viral, stirring viewers with its powerful life-or-death message. The PSA, “Rewind the Future,” is from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Strong4Life wellness movement, which has made waves in the past with its shock-value campaigns. The latest video has been viewed more than 3 million times since Sunday, and is sparking intense discussion about obesity on Reddit and YouTube.

“This was me when I was a kid,” wrote one Redditor, referring to the story conveyed in the video’s succinct minute and 42 seconds. It focuses on a 32-year-old man and his path to heart disease, which began in childhood with unhealthy eating and video-game habits. Another shared, “I’m 5’9, 32 years old and almost 300 pounds. I played all those gaming systems and pretty much grew up like that… I think for the first time, a PSA got to me.”

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Others offered diet and fitness tips, and a few physicians even weighed in, including one who offered this: “As someone who is overweight (working on it, have lost considerable weight) and an MD, obesity is a very, very personal and important topic for me. I have seen time and time again obese patients crash in the hospital. Obesity is perhaps one of the worst comorbidities to have for a hospital patient. It complicates everything. Every. Single. Thing.… And while I do understand that these patients are responsible for their conditions, I cannot help but feel empathetic when I look back at my own history.”

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, one of the largest pediatric providers in the country, originally launched the video back in 2012. But it didn’t make much of a splash until it resurfaced this week on Reddit and was subsequently picked up by BuzzFeed. “Now was when the conversation was ready to happen,” CHA wellness marketer Carolina Cruxent told Yahoo Health, referring to recent national discussions about soda bans, nutrition in schools, and obesity in general. “The time was just right.”

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The video, which took two months to make from conception to editing, was a creative collaboration between Cruxent and vice president of marketing Tim Whitehead. The duo said that its aim, based on audience research, was to help people, particularly parents, become aware of the issue, and to prompt them to want to make small steps toward lifestyle changes. “The shock is one small part of our overall effort,” Whitehead said. “We’re trying to help parents see themselves and their behaviors, and to understand the impact of those behaviors.” 

But some obesity experts say that the video carries a potentially off-putting, if not damaging, message — similar to a 2012 poster campaign from Strong4Life, which sparked accusations of “fat-shaming.”

“If you want to draw attention to yourself and your campaign, then this is a helpful video. If what you want is to have a helpful effect on childhood obesity, the research is clear that shocking and stigmatizing doesn’t really help,” obesity researcher and public policy expert Ted Kyle told Yahoo Health. He pointed to two recent studies from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, which found that campaigns that stigmatized obese people were not effective motivators for behavior change. “Shame is not a friend to promoting health,” he added, whether the issue at hand is mental health, AIDS, or cholera. He also noted that shaming only creates defense mechanisms in the targets of such ads, and that “fat activism is born out of that.”

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Regarding the flood of positive feedback on social media, Kyle said much of it could be generated from “people who want to feel better about themselves,” and who gain satisfaction in fat shaming others. “Historically, people have had the [mistaken] idea that being obese is a choice that people make,” he said.

James Zervios, spokesperson for the Obesity Action Coalition, also feels the video comes up short. “It left me feeling a little frustrated,” he told Yahoo Health. “It has a heavy focus on food. But it’s not a one-dimensional problem, and we realistically have to accept that obesity is about more than food — because if it was, then we wouldn’t have a crisis on our hands.” Zervios points to genetics, physical activity, nutrition, and a psychological component as all having a hand in the epidemic, and said he found it “interesting” that the PSA put so much of the onus on the mother, who is seen giving her young son sugary drinks and french fries to soothe him.

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“My argument would be, why isn’t the doctor asking him more about his food choices? Obviously there was another issue there that wasn’t being addressed [by doctors],” he said. Zervios did add, though, that he saw the value in starting a discussion through the campaign. “If it’s getting people to think about the disease of obesity, then that’s a good thing at the end of the day.” 

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