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Carlos Osorio  /  AP file
Critics complain the government's new obesity ad campaign sidesteps what some feel are the real causes of the obesity epidemic, the abundance of cheap and large portions of sugary and high-calorie foods.
updated 10/22/2007 3:54:36 PM ET 2007-10-22T19:54:36

Drunks swimming in gin, smokers in body bags and dopers living with their parents deep into adulthood. Those are among the public service ads shown in the United States in the past.

But the U.S. government's new batch of obesity spots declines even to show a fat person, let alone wag a finger for gluttony or sloth.

No one is advocating public service announcements that ridicule fat people; experts say such spots would do more harm than good. But critics complain that the three new spots premiering this month are a wimpy attack on the costly and deadly explosion of obesity in America.

"It's so namby-pamby I think people will shrug it off," said Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based advocacy organization.

The three new spots are the latest in a series created by the Ad Council and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which try to tackle the U.S.'s obesity problem with ads that encourage healthy snacking and taking the stairs.

Creators of the "Small Steps" campaign, funded by the government at more than $1.5 million a year, cite survey data for 467 adults which showed those who saw the ads did more walking and adopted some other healthy habits than those who did not see the ads.

But critics say such a survey is hardly proof of success, and the U.S's fat problem is clearly getting worse — more than one in three U.S. children are overweight or obese, and two in three adults are.

Thinking small
"I think 'Small Steps' is a euphemism for small vision," said Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University's Center for Eating and Weight Disorders.

The "Small Steps" campaign began in 2004. It was created for free by McCann Erickson New York, the ad agency that created the MasterCard "Priceless" campaign. Six TV spots have aired so far, all professionally produced and humorous, highlighting tips to healthier living.

This month, three more spots joined the rotation, along with a multimedia campaign focusing on exercise. The new anti-obesity TV spots show trim or slightly pudgy people noticing blobs of fat on a hotel room floor or in a theater. They comment that someone must have lost it by eating healthy snacks.

The spots' creators say they learned in focus groups that many people are intimidated _ hopeless, even — about the sustained changes needed to slim down.

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"So many people, when they think about losing weight, see it as a Sisyphean task — 'I have to lose weight but I can't fit it into my busy schedule,'" said Peggy Conlon, president of the Ad Council.

The ads offer easily achievable tips that empower people to make positive changes, she added.

The ads targeting smoking are not as tame. A recent one by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene shows smokers' decayed and tumored bodies.

Young viewers pay more attention to ads that evoke feelings of personal loss, sadness, anger, disgust or fear, according to an analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kids also tend to remember such ads longer.

That drama is lacking in the obesity spots — for example, none have offered a surgeon's view of fat, or dramatized a death from Type 2 diabetes, or shown a person complaining about how a fat neighbor's medical bills are costing taxpayers.

In the past, the vegan advocacy group, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, has taken a somewhat confrontational approach.

In 2005, the group put out a spot in which doctors pull a pizza and jumbo-sized soda away from an intently eating fat boy and toss him an apple. They put out another in which the same doctors haul away fatty foods from a restaurant called Chubby's.

The group has no data on whether the ads are working, but the government ads "don't address the obesity problem in a vivid enough way to get people's attention," said Patrick Sullivan, the group's communications director.

Other complaints
That raises a second complaint with the government's campaign: It sidesteps what some feel are the real causes of the obesity epidemic, the abundance of cheap and large portions of sugary and high-calorie foods.

"The U.S. government doesn't have the guts to go after junk food producers," Jacobson said.

Tied in with the "Small Steps" campaign, the Ad Council and federal health department are part of the "Coalition for Healthy Children," whose members include Coca Cola, PepsiCo, the Hershey Co. and the National Confectioners Association. Critics say the partnership suggests a conflict of interest that might dissuade efforts to discourage soft drinks or candy bars.

Food and soda companies did not alter what was said in spots, said Ellyn Fisher, an Ad Council spokeswoman. The content was shaped by advertising research, which concluded the spots were humorous and motivating, she said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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