Controversial anti-obesity ad garners mixed reaction in Halifax

HALIFAX – An anti-obesity ad is making waves for its dramatic message, but health experts in Halifax are concerned it is doing so for the wrong reasons.

The PSA shows a man suffering a heart attack before flashing back to scenes showing him sipping soda, eating French fries and ordering take-out.

The video, created by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, warms parents that they need to reverse their kids’ unhealthy eating habits.

Story continues below advertisement

But Dr. Michael Vallis, a health psychologist, said the ad is misguided.

“The real power behind this message is fear. We know fear is a very poor motivator,” he said. “The problem here is when it describes the problem it seems to display all the problems being on the responsibility of the individual.”

Vallis,  who works with obese adults, said people struggling with it won’t find the commercial helpful.

“They already know they engage in those behaviours. They feel bad about themselves for [doing it],” he said. “There’s no guidance as to how they might make changes and be supported in making changes.”

“How can we organize a consistent and collaborative approach that tries to help people make personal choices that feel empowering to them and they can then be supported by others?”

Jessie-Lee McIsaac, a post-doctoral research fellow with the School of Health and Human Performance at Dalhousie University, said the video has shock value that doesn’t encourage behavioural changes.

Story continues below advertisement
“It simplifies [obesity] as ‘you need to eat better and move more’. If the solution to [being] overweight and obesity was that simple, we wouldn’t have this epidemic,” she said.

McIsaac said one-third of children in Nova Scotia are overweight or obese, and the high number stems from several factors including a car culture and expensive healthy foods.

She said the video waters down a complex issue.

“When we think about a child, it’s not only their parents that contribute to their behaviour and need to set good role modeling,” she said, adding that schools, public health policy and other factors can influence children.

The video elicited mixed reactions from Halifax residents.

“It hits home pretty hard for me,” said Rob MacNeish, a 29-year-old who recently had a family member pass away from complications related to obesity.

“I think it takes away, for lack of a better word, the sugarcoating on how people deal with obesity,” he said.

Story continues below advertisement

“This is how intense it can be. It’s not body-shaming, but it’s getting real about what it is to be obese and to have health complications.”

MacNeish said he’s been taking proactive steps to improve his health since his relative died — healthy habits he hopes to pass onto his five-year-old son.

Resident Katie Glen said she found the ad offensive.

“It just contributes to this whole idea that people who are overweight deserve all the health problems they have because they brought it on themselves by making poor health choices,” she said.

“It doesn’t address any of the other factors that might be a part of why someone is obese. I don’t really think the way to get people to eat healthier is to portray overweight people as these gluttonous pigs who can’t control themselves.”

While the verdict on the video is still out, Vallis said the spot is a good talking point for parents, especially with back-to-school right around the corner.

He said the key is to make the healthy option the simplest.

“How can we work together to make that harder choice — to be more healthy — the more easy choice for people?”