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Anti-obesity ad shocks New Yorkers

By Claire Prentice
New York

Critics fear the shock value of the ad could distract from its message

A glass of thick, yellow human fat, marbled with blood vessels, is the latest weapon in America's war on obesity.

The new shock adverts, which are accompanied by the words "Are you pouring on the pounds?", target the billions of hidden calories which Americans consume each year in sodas and other sugary drinks.

America has a serious soda habit: residents drink 15 billion gallons of the fizzy stuff each year.

New York health officials say the images used in the new campaign are intended to be "ugly" and are designed to give people a jolt.

"We really wanted to make a statement and grab people's attention," said Cathy Nonas, director of the city health department's Physical Activity and Nutrition Programs.

'Big problem'

New York is waging an increasingly visible battle against the bulge.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration has already clamped down on trans-fats. It has also forced cafes, restaurants and fast-food outlets to post calorie content information on menus, deployed fruit vendors to poor neighbourhoods and given corner shops incentives to sell fresh fruit and vegetables.

"We've just begun," added Ms Nonas. "Obesity is a big problem and we are going to do everything in our power to combat it."

On average, Americans now consume 200 to 300 more calories each day than they did 30 years ago. Some of that is down to the "supersizing" phenomenon identified in Morgan Spurlock's 2004 documentary "Super Size Me".

Showing people a gruesome image and saying, 'look, this is what you're doing to your body' makes people think
Jonathan Alpert
Psychotherapist

But as well as growing portion sizes, Americans are pouring calories down their throats. Sugar-sweetened drinks can contain up to 17 teaspoons of sugar per 550ml bottle.

Lori Tobin and her daughter, Stella, 11, saw the new "Pouring on the Pounds" advert on their daily commute to uptown Manhattan.

"It's gross," said Stella. "It really opens your eyes. I had no idea there was so much sugar in these drinks," her mother added.

Public health advocates say the country is facing an obesity epidemic, which is costing the United States $147bn (£92bn) annually in healthcare. According to the latest US government statistics, 32.2% of American adults and 17.1% of children are clinically obese.

Obesity can lead to early heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, cancers, stroke and arthritis.

The "Pouring on the Pounds" campaign, which is running throughout the New York subway system, is scheduled to last for three months. It is backed up by a blog where readers can post their questions, to be answered by a city health official.

Backfire

"Shock adverts work," said New York psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert. "Showing people a gruesome image and saying, 'look, this is what you're doing to your body' makes people think."

The advert is the latest in a series of hard-hitting campaigns used by the New York Health Department. They include anti-smoking adverts featuring a woman who has had several fingers amputated due to a disease caused by smoking and an X-ray of cancer-stricken lungs.

The anti-obesity campaign comes on the back of a strongly-worded report published by the independent Institute of Medicine (IOM) which found that obesity rates in American children have tripled over the past three decades.

Characters from the film Where the Wild Things Are (Picture: courtesy of US Department of Health and Human Services,  2009, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
US health officials are using film characters to get their points across

The IMNRC report recommended that state and local governments tax junk food and soft drinks, give tax breaks to grocery stores that stock fresh fruit and vegetables in poor neighbourhoods and build bike trails.

New York is leading the way on many of these initiatives and is being watched closely by public health officials across the country who are grappling with the same weighty problem.

But critics warned that shock advertising can backfire.

"These images look so disgusting that it's a turn-off, you look away without taking the message in," said George Parker, an advertising expert and author of The Ubiquitous Persuaders.

New York subway rider Dean Philips, 18, said he did not think the adverts would change people's behaviour.

"They look kind of lame," he said. "We're bombarded with so many messages and these don't stand out."

Children's story

Opinion is divided among experts as to the best way to tackle obesity.

A new multimedia advertising campaign called "Did You Play Today?" launched by the US Department of Health and Human Services takes a gentler approach.

It uses characters from Maurice Sendak's classic children's story, Where the Wild Things Are, to try to encourage children to lead healthy lifestyles.

Some opponents say the New York campaign is too little too late.

They point out that the city previously struck a deal with Snapple to allow the drinks manufacturer the exclusive right to put soft drinks vending machines in schools and municipal buildings. The deal expired this year.

If successful, the "Pouring on the Pounds" campaign could be rolled out across the country.

"New York is often the first and other people follow," said Ms Nonas.

"We would be very happy for other states to use our campaign free of charge. We have to band together to fight this global problem."



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SEE ALSO
Menus to display calorie counts
05 Apr 09 |  Health
Chains begin counting calories
05 Apr 09 |  Health
US debates 'hidden' food fats ban
30 Oct 06 |  Americas

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