“This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” Derivatives of this have become part of our cultural punch lines, but there was a time the blurb itself carried quite a punch. You may remember your own reaction the first few times you saw the advertisement. It was jarring in its unblinking visuals and straightforward message. The brilliance of the campaign was its unflinching honesty and shock value. It was a message that was heard loud and clear. If memory serves, the previous public service announcement with similar impact was the single tear of the actor playing a Native American. Throwing trash out your car window wasn’t so tempting if you thought it would make that nice silent man cry.
It’s been quite a number of decades since both of those campaigns. During that time we have almost all our vices banned or black boxed. Warning labels are printed on any and everything that might someday be used in a manner that leads to litigation. You’d be hard pressed to come up with anything left for which to promote consumer awareness. Awareness is at an all time high. There is a different colored ribbon for every day of the week, and a rubber bracelet to coordinate.
So what is a city to do when it decides to combat obesity with an awareness campaign? How far is a city willing to go? Obesity, unlike drug use or littering, is rife with sensitivity. That frying egg was not aimed at drug addicts, it was intended as a preventative message. Littering was never seen as a morality issue, it was just time to do something about the trend. But obesity?! First off, the public service announcements are not targeting people who may be considering a life of obesity; they are aimed at the overweight. People know they are overweight, and have a whole host of feelings about it. Showing images (photo-shopped or not) of overweight people with moderately small text warning of future medical issues is one big yawn. There is nothing shocking or even helpful about that messaging. But it is safe, isn’t it? Who could you possibly offend?
If you consider the health implications of obesity to be serious enough to launch a campaign, you might just have to offend a bit (or break a few eggs as the case may be.) Perhaps more effective than showing a larger sized woman climbing up subway steps, would be showing her trying to fit into a subway seat? Maybe an image of her getting acrylic nails and the tag line “wouldn’t it be nice to have more fashion choices?” Sexist? Probably. Instead of manipulating an image of a portly man to indicate limb loss, how about a campaign about libido loss? Disease is one thing, but impotency is quite another.
How do you do this without offending? You probably don’t. But if the point of the campaign is to change behavior, a little bluntness might be just the ticket. There was a time when our whole country smoked: in elevators and in movie theatres! It took years, but boy have times changed. Nobody ever quit smoking due to an advert of a smoker with the message; “smoking leads to disease.” Why not emulate the success of the No Smoking campaign? Black box processed foods, eliminate junk food in the workplace, mandate all weight loss systems to include the following declaration; “this is not an education or behavior modification program, effective only while using our product.” and develop jarring public service adverts.
If you believe that body size is too personal to discuss in a blunt and in your face manner, maybe it is in fact personal.