One in three children are overweight in the United States. One in six are obese. If nothing is done about America's growing problem, it is predicted that today's children will live shorter lives than their parents.
An Atlanta hospital has taken these statistics and turned them into a blunt advertising campaign. The Strong4Life campaign, run by Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, has posted billboards around the city since August featuring unflattering black and white photos of unhappy fat children.
Underneath the photos are candid warnings: "Warning: Fat prevention starts at home. And the buffet line," and "Warning: It's hard to be a little girl, if you're not," or "Warning: My fat may be funny to you, but it's killing me."
Georgia has the nation's second highest childhood obesity rate, and those behind the campaign defend the advertising, insisting there is a public health issue at stake.
"We saw the problem as something that we should take some responsibility for, and something that we had to fix," Mark Wulkan, surgeon-in-chief at Children's Healthcare, said in a BBC interview.
But online activists view the billboards as bullying, and said they play up dangerous stereotypes about health and size. Alan Guttmacher, a child healthcare expert at the National Institutes of Health, warned that this the ads carry "a great risk of increasing stigma."
As part of a battle against the ads, Shannon Russell, who runs the blog Fierce, Freethinking Fatties, solicited letters denouncing the campaign from various health care organizations.
"Studies show that the perception that obesity is solely a matter of personal responsibility as opposed to understanding the complexity of contributing factors, can increase negative stereotypes about overweight people," Russell wrote on the site. "It is important, therefore, that public messages about obesity address this complexity whenever possible."
Russell has a point. But so do the ads. Their direct message is not that dissimilar from the warnings located on the back of cigarettes. And studies show that those messages actually encourage people not to smoke ...
Michelle Obama launched a nationwide campaign to tackle childhood obesity two years called the Let's Move campaign, which seeks to raise the nutritional level of school meals and improve access to healthier food in deprived areas. She hopes to solve the childhood obesity problem within a generation.
This might have worked a little: in recent years U.S. obesity rates have stabilized.
But they still remain significantly higher than in most other developed countries.
The problem is not just what the kids are eating at school. It's what parents are teaching (or not teaching, for that matter) their kids about healthy life habits.
Parents are often surprised, even angry, when told that their child is too heavy. The problem is that they have become adjusted to overweight as being the norm. Understandably, parents compare their own child with the children around them, and then tend to sugarcoat the problem: "Well, my kid isn't as fat as that kid."
I think this blunt ad campaign has a very effective message. However, that message should be targeted toward parents and healthcare leaders, not necessarily kids. There is a fine line between marketer's wanting to be heard and the message being effective versus the message being heard at the expense of self-conscious kids who are hurting because of their weight and the repercussions of it.
It is the parents' job to encourage their children to enroll in extra-curricular sports and leisure activities they should not be coming home and plopping down in front of the TV. It is also the parents' job to pack their kids healthy foods for lunch, rather than giving them money so they can buy pizza and soda at school.
People are angry because this ad unapologetically puts a disregarded problem in black and white: eat healthy or die young. It's really as simple as that. So be angry. And do something about it.
Sarah T. Schwab is a Sunday OBSERVER contributor and Fredonia State graduate. Send comments to
or view her Web site at www.SarahTSchwab.com