Childhood Obesity Ad Gives People a Case of the “Creepies”

Causing an uproar: this photoshopped childhood obesity ad created by First 5, a California-based agency

Causing an uproar: this photoshopped childhood obesity ad created by First 5, a California-based agency

(Note: this post was published on my other blog, Flabby Road, on June 11, 2013 and I felt it was appropriate to post here as well.  Flabby Road stems from my 70 pound weight loss six years ago).

This is going to be a “here we go again,” story. It’s about humans finding things wrong with and exaggerating a situation until the original message is so mangled, no one knows what on Earth’s happening. We get mad at a shoe store employee who makes us fear antelopes and in turn, write nasty emails to frozen string bean companies. You’ll see what I mean.

Here’s some background: The weight gain, get-trim battle is nothing new. From Suzanne Somers touting her ThighMaster back in the day and now, gym memberships costing Americans billions of dollars annually, it’s obvious we can’t wait to shed the weight. Magazine covers are blanketed with topics such as, “How to Lose 25 Pounds by July 4,” we’re seeing an increase in nutritional information displayed on menus and folks are more aware of what our children are eating in school.


Indeed, childhood obesity is alarming: obesity among children and adolescents has tripled from only one generation ago. The health risks obese children face are serious issues, just as they are for adults. However, studies show that 1) obese children are more likely to become obese adults and 2) overweight children are more likely to battle self-esteem issues. At an age where kids can be ruthless about anything from a hairclip choice to pant style, we can imagine how hurtful unkind words over the very skin children live in can be.

The Controversy . . . or Not

So why then, are a lot of people in an uproar over a childhood obesity ad designed to educate people on the health consequences of children who consume too many sugary drinks? Awareness is a good thing, right?

Apparently, many are taking issue with the fact that California-based agency, First 5, photoshopped the ad. It shows an overweight girl sipping sugar directly from a sugar packet. An author found the original photo and showed a side-by-side comparison, letting the word know that what we’re seeing is an altered image.

Creepy Can be a Lot of Things. This Ad Isn’t One of Them.

We all have our definitions of creepy. This is one of mine.

We all have our definitions of creepy. This is one of mine.

A lot of people call the ad “creepy.” Maybe it’s a matter of semantics, but “creepy” to me is one of three things: 1) scary movies from my past, like Pet Cemetery 2) Pee-Wee Herman movie theater-like weirdness and 3) when a waitress under 30 calls me “honey” or “darling.’” In other words, scary things involving pets, pervs and overly-passionate professionals.

Perhaps people intend to say they find the ad shocking, not creepy. To which I say, “good.”

Sometimes we need to be rattled from our sensitivity cages. Yes, this world has become overly-litigious, overly politically correct, but when does it end? Having worked in advertising, I “get” that there are watchdog agencies monitoring us to ensure that what’s portrayed on the page (or TV commercial) is aligned with the realities of the product’s claims. But consumers getting in an uproar about an ad showing an overweight girl in an anti-obesity ad? That’s like being upset over an ad showing a mug for a coffee commercial.

Educating Versus Shaming?

Many folks are saying it harms the already-fragile ego of overweight children, “fat-shaming” them into eating better. The thought is that the photoshopped ad is too focused on appearance: children will be made to feel bad for looking “different” and parents will feel just as bad as they look over at their adorable pudgy eight-year-old playing in the sandbox. They then feel shamed into losing weight based on a looks issue, rather than a health issue.

Trust me, I know what it’s like to be judged on how I look. Being an obese high school junior, especially in a school that’s bigger on cliques than class, didn’t go over well with me. But I also know that ad agencies have mere seconds to get our attention. First 5’s visualization draws us in, getting the point across well. Plus, it’s handled tactfully. No one’s shaming anyone here.

The point of the First 5 childhood obesity ad is to educate. Had the ad showed a girl of an average weight surrounded by admiring friends next to a picture of the same girl, now photoshopped as an overweight child while much thinner fingers pointed at her on the playground, hands over their snickering pigtailed faces . . . well yes, then this would have been an offensive “shaming” ad. However this ad simply shows a before and after image to make a point based on stats: eating sugary drinks and having bad eating habits may lead to obesity. No more, no less. Yet here we go again. Surely, this will somehow come to be case against laundromats or maybe, scented candles. The shoe store/mailman/frozen string bean scenario.

No More Puppies Under the Christmas Tree

It’s common these days to read into just about anything in the world around us, be it a roadside sign, a facial expression or an ad. I suppose it’s par for the course today: we can’t seem to take much of anything for what it is. Surely an ad for a blanket showing a cozy scene of a puppy sitting under a Christmas tree would upset many: it should have been a dachshund, and the fact that it’s not is showing humans’ inability to recognize all breeds . . . it should also include a menorah or else allude to no religious affiliation at all . . . because of the animal choice, it’s “saying” that “holidays” and/or religion should “go to the dogs.” See how this spirals out of control?

Us humans often aren’t happy until we dig far enough in the good to find an imaginary bad. Then we’re satisfied.

Another bunch of people are angered because they say this ad does not provide a positive focus/solution. Am I missing something? The copy underneath reads, “Sugary drinks like juice, sports drinks and soda can cause obesity. Choose milk and water instead.” Seems like an educational statement to me. Seems to offer a healthy choice to me.

But Wait, There’s More (Read the Copy)

When I was an ad copywriter, the running joke was (still is) that “no one reads the copy.” We’re a visual society that reacts first at eye-catching images long before we read the words on the page, if we even get to that point at all. Many times, we’re almost so fixated on the image that we can’t move beyond. It’s too shocking, too pretty, too “creepy.” In turn, the image often becomes the ad, despite the fact that copy accompanies the visual. Seems like this is a clear case of “no one reads the copy” if ever there was one.

So, I say kudos to First 5. Their anti-obesity ad is attention-getting and educational, and done in a manner that is not offensive. The only shaming going on here is our inability to face the facts, photoshopped or not.

What are your thoughts about this ad?


©Copyright 2011-2013, Jennifer Lilley, and Flabby Road: Moving on & Leaving the Elastic Waistbands Behind. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Lilley and Flabby Road with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.