How to solve the wrong problem: the obesity crisis edition

Hello, I’m Kate Brennan and this is the news from my Twitter feed. The headlines: Is this ad fat shaming? Today has seen intense controversy surrounding the latest awareness-raising campaign from Cancer Research UK:

So: what do you think?

With my ‘I work in advertising’ hat on, judging it objectively as a piece of communication, I think it’s great: it’s impactful and it’s caused a reaction, meaning that the message will go even further (for free). It has certainly nailed the brief of ‘make people aware that obesity causes cancer’.

The problem with it is that it’s trying to solve the wrong problem.

Yes, it does the job of telling everyone that obesity is the second biggest preventable cause of cancer, in a way that they’ll remember. But it’s not new news that obesity is considered to be unhealthy. Overweight people know this. Obese people know this. We all know this.

And yet obesity rates continue to climb.

Is the fact that obesity is a leading cause of cancer the missing link that’ll turn the rising tide? Unlikely.

The ‘let’s educate people to make better choices’ strategy comes from a place of wanting to believe that people are rational and respond to reason. If we feed them facts; they’ll make better choices.

This leads to people thinking that we can fix obesity with education. If we inform people and encourage them to take personal responsibility for their weight, behaviour change will follow.

Oh, if only.

The real problem is that obesity isn’t just ‘the second biggest preventable cause of cancer’. It’s a complicated issue in its own right, with causes that look something like this:

Source: Public Health England

Individual psychology? Only one part of the puzzle. Meaning: even if you get the whole world to take responsibility for its diet and physical activity, the world will still be are fighting against all of those other causes of obesity.

I’ve spent around half of my career working on public health campaigns; plus three years part time studying psychology at postgraduate level. So I have some knowledge about this topic; as well as a huge amount of pent-up frustration that the conversation always boils down to ‘They should take individual responsibility! They eat too many pies and won’t face the consequences!’

Yes, individuals have control over what they do. But they’re living in a world that makes it easy to be overweight and hard to be thin. If you’re overweight, you have to fight your biology at every turn. You have to fight ingrained habits, and the ingrained habits of those around you too.

I suspect there’s an underlying bias in us that sees the individual behaviour of overweight people as the low-hanging fruit of the obesity crisis. Tackling all that systems stuff is hard, right? But telling the fat people ‘Just put down the chips, they’re bad for you’ is easy. So we end up doing that instead.

But there are studies that indicate that dieting doesn’t work in the long term, that exercise is good for you but doesn’t really help with weight loss. There are growing online movements of fat people who are sick of being stigmatised and judged. They’re tired of being sold diets and fitness programmes that don’t work (and being blamed for the fact they don’t work too). And they are PISSED OFF with being told that they just need to eat less and move more.

In this climate, ads aimed at educating people who are overweight (implication: you’re obese because you’re ignorant of The Facts) or urging them to take personal responsibility will most likely backfire. They’ll see your ad as fat shaming, and therefore they will refuse to entertain your message; therefore they’re not going to be inspired to change their behaviour. Meaning you’ve wasted your time and your ad budget.

So if your goal is to lower the rates of obesity through communications, here are a few ways it could be done instead:

  • Tackle the (real) barriers, not the behaviour: Remember This Girl Can? It was effective because it challenged the pressure placed on women to look polished and pretty at all times. It didn’t wag fingers about the consequences of not exercising; it took aim and fired at what was stopping them from doing so. There are TONS of barriers stopping people from eating healthily and getting enough exercise. Have at them.
  • Don’t leave us hanging: Studies have shown that having an action plan is a crucial ingredient for behaviour change. If you must go down the ‘make them worry’ route, at least give people something they can DO to alleviate that. CRUK’s site is full of sound advice that has been informed by psychologists
  • Find the sweet spot: Here’s how I see the current climate of health advice. In the red corner, you have The Establishment: Well-meaning and scientifically right, but uninspiring. In the blue corner, you have the Wellness Gurus: captivating but unrealistic for those of us who will never have the budget for maca powder or enough time for core exercises. (Also; probably unqualified and possibly peddling snake oil). Why can’t these things be brought together? Why can’t we make everyday well-being both exciting and actionable?

Whilst it’s unlikely that obesity can be ‘solved’ by an ad campaign alone; the ad campaigns we do run could and should be much better. Let’s stop trying the same thing and expecting different results; let’s check our lazy assumptions at the door and start finding new ways to talk about this.