Think of the (Fat) Children: Minnesota's 'Better Example' Anti-Obesity Campaign

Urging people to set better examples for their kids plays on a moral imperative that lies in the gray area between educating and shaming.

Shoppingmain.jpgMinnesota Blue Cross

In 2011 a high-energy anti-obesity ad (video embedded) became something of a meme in the North Star State. If it didn't inspire sedentary Minnesotans to join in the "Do Groove," it at least made a celebrity of its sweater-vested protagonist.

That ad embodied aspects of effective anti-obeisty campaigns identified by a recent Yale study. Like First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative -- it focused on positive motivation while avoiding explicit mention of the elephant in the room: obesity. Few feelings were hurt, but was it effective?

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The Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, an independent non-profit, has a unique advantage on targeting public health issues of tobacco use, physical activity, and unhealthy eating. In 1998, it sued a cigarette manufacturer and earned itself a $469 million portion of a $6.1 billion settlement. While encouraging people to move and to eat better was good, it realized it was time to really drive home the need to make immediate changes.

"To be honest, we've spent a lot of years promoting physical activity, a little bit like what the White House campaign is currently doing, in a very positive, sort of fun way," said Dr. Marc Manley, vice president and chief prevention officer for the Blue Cross. "But at the same time we're realizing that this problem of obesity is a really serious problem." So their two new commercials, which debuted this month, take a decisively more aggressive stance:

There are some obvious parallels in the Minnesota campaign to one undertaken in Georgia -- down to the resemblance of the little girls featured. In both, the focus is on childhood obesity, with the acknowledgement that unhealthy eating is a pattern set early that can follow them into adulthood. These new ads also highlight the role that parents have in shaping these habits, something that the Yale study identified as potentially off-putting to audiences. 

But Manley insists that the more serious campaign, finger-pointing and all, is what Minnesota needs. What convinced him was an analysis that predicted the current generation of children will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. This is the first time in U.S. history that this is anticipated to happen, he says, and obesity is the main cause.

At the same time, they didn't want to alienate any Minnesotans. "We wanted to portray these as normal people, good parents, who had a good relationship with their kids," he explained. The people in the ads aren't locals, so they aren't likely to be recognized in the street or associated with the campaign.

But they're overweight, said Manley, because two-thirds of Minnesotans are overweight. And their target audience needs to recognize themselves in the commercials in order to effect what he hopes will be an "aha moment," where they realize that "the example of what they buy and what they eat may be sending the wrong message to their kids."

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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