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Under the Microscope: Dissecting the Georgia Anti-Obesity Campaign

This is a post that my friend/colleague Fran Melmed of [context communication] wrote recently, dissecting Georgia’s media campaign around childhood obesity. I really enjoyed how it was broken down and wanted to share with you all – with permission from Fran, of course (who by the way, enjoys lowercase writing).

the georgia children’s health alliance has taken a lot of grief for this campaign. the links here are a smattering of the hue and cry. the campaign originally consisted of billboard ads and a website with four personal narratives. the billboards have been pulled and so has one of the videos.

i’ll be honest; i don’t like the campaign. i’m going to break down why in this post, because dissecting this campaign offers valuable lessons for employers working this health puzzle. i’ve included the billboard ads and one of the four videos. i wanted to include the one from bobby, but that was pulled. rightfully so. i review why in “message” below.

your face here?

health awareness is not promotion

one of my issues with this campaign is that it’s a health awareness campaign, not a health promotion campaign, the difference being that one makes you conscious of something and the other helps you do something about it. stealing from the world health organization, health promotion is “the process of enabling people to increase control over, and to improve, their health.” awareness campaigns have knowledge as the end result; promotion campaigns: action taken.

what works

even though i don’t think this campaign works as a whole, i don’t want to shortchange the fact that (most of) the videos do. the kids are emotionally naked. they bring you into their world, and it’s painful to be there. most grown-ups watching this video—parent or not—would want to do what they can to alleviate their pain.

what doesn’t work

now for what doesn’t work and what i think would’ve fixed it. i’m breaking down my reasons into three buckets: tone, message, and location (or channel).

tone. there’s a vast difference between the tone of the billboard ads and that of the videos. the kids break your heart. they speak about their pain, about being ostracized, about their illnesses in stark terms. the billboard ads use punchy lines and common jokes, like having “big bones,” to make a point.

how it could’ve been fixed: stay true to one tone—the tone that’ll appeal most to the audience you’re trying to reach. the alliance has been a little wishy-washy on who that audience is, but most of us would agree it’s parents. the genuine tone of the kids is the one to stick with and carry through to the billboards. it has the emotional pull and resonance the billboard text currently lacks.

message. with any communication, your aim is to leave your target audience with one clear message about what they should think, feel or do. consider the “it gets better” project. it’s name is its message, and the message is carried through every video as well. here, it’s unclear what the main message is. parents could feel shame, sorrow, inadequacy. as to what they should think or do? that’s left to their own invention.

(note: bobby’s video was pulled and replaced with this awkward one. here are my planned comments on that video which features bobby talking about his love of donuts, his hiding of chips so he can eat them later, and his vegetable disgust. “a separate issue is bobby’s video. i parenthetically added ‘most of’ when talking about what works about the videos because bobby’s stands out as being different. he talks of his love of food. of donuts and chips. i’ve no doubt he loves these things. most of us do. but in a campaign about childhood obesity, his testimony seems open to ridicule. its message validates the person who already believes solving obesity is as simple as telling someone to put down the donut. this video may be meant to show parents their food choices matter, but it’s a poor, misplaced choice and makes bobby vulnerable.” obviously, others turned up the heat on the alliance and they pulled the video, which would’ve been my suggestion as well.)

how it could’ve been fixed: kill the glib, dire billboard text. replace it with a combination of the kids’ real words and a new tag line. i’d play around with something we parents hear regularly from our kids: “mommy…daddy…help me.” one billboard could read something like: “mama, help me: i want to play outside. stopchildhoodobesity.com.” not only would this approach play to our role as supporter, nurturer and steward, but it makes it clear that parents need to step up and learn how to prevent and reduce obesity and its many related problems. the idea needs work, but a clear call to parents to help their kids live a full, happy, healthy life might be a more persuasive technique.

location/channel. bj fogg explains effective behavior change as putting hot triggers in the path of motivated people. what he means is that we need to seize opportunities when someone shows a readiness to make a change. we need to allow them to act right then before the moment’s gone. you could argue that the billboard is a hot trigger, but we have no reason to believe that someone driving down the road is specifically motivated to tackle his or her child’s obesity problem. nor does driving down a road constitute a very good opportunity to take action.

the second breakdown here is that anyone who’s triggered to visit the stopchildhoodobesity site won’t find much. it features the videos of the four kids, a brief video on georgia’s childhood obesity statistics and an invite to join the conversation on facebook. there’s no support here. no guidance. no resources. no links. that’s coming in a previously unmentioned phase two and three, according to a recent interview given by ron frieson of the alliance. if you do visit their facebook page, you’ll find a stunning lack of involvement from the alliance. it’s been taken over by haters and others, including a representative from the CBS show the talk, who’s hunting them down for comment, i assume.

how it could’ve been fixed: don’t rely solely on one channel. billboards may be right for georgia’s culture, but there are significant shortfalls with their use, including fighting for attention in a cluttered air space. add channels that are relevant to and can springboard your audience to guided action. for example, ancillary materials shared with doctors, health clinics, community centers and schools bring the subject closer to the desired audience at a time when the information can be combined with personal discussion.

create a social strategy and follow through on it. the campaign’s use of facebook, twitter and youtube is ill-thought-out and poorly executed. they had an opportunity to reach out to the community, to rally discussion, to pull in people who’ve been there and can advise, nudge and empathize. instead, they’ve ceded the facebook page to the individuals commenting on it instead of engaging them in conversation, and they’ve let their youtube and twitter page languish. the obvious fix is: don’t take the easy step of using the tools and miss the hard, first step of planning.

these are my opinions, and these things can be subjective. a young woman who was part of the campaign eloquently spoke out about how her confidence grew because of being part of this campaign. what are your thoughts?


Fran regularly blogs on wellness/health in the workplace and health communication initiatives. She is the co-founder of the #co_health Twitter chat, a monthly chat on corporate wellness topics. You can follow her on Twitter at @femelmed.

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