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Chickens and Eggs —

March 14, 2012

By now, you’ve probably seen the Strong4Life’s “Stop the Cycle” video, and maybe you’ve even read my two substantive critiques of the ad, or else read my light-hearted analysis of the anachronisms contained therein (and maybe even proceeded to completely flip your shit in response).

Well, today we get a glimpse behind the curtain. I spoke with Jonathan Hayes, Director of Productions at North Avenue Post, the company that produced “Stop the Cycle” for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA).

Hayes made it clear that “Stop the Cycle” was CHOA’s idea, but that he breathed life into it:

We’ve been working with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and they came with an idea for this “Stop the Cycle” video and that’s pretty much what they had. I took their idea and wrote a script with it, got a lot more specific in detail. And then we shot it about 2.5 weeks later.

Hayes said he believed shooting took place on February 10, which would put his script submission at approximately January 23. As a point of reference, one week prior to this would have been the start of our Call to Action, when we began contacting, and receiving, condemnations against Strong4Life from organizations and celebrities.

But even more important, it seems as though a mere two weeks after they “re-launched” their campaign January 4 (at least that’s when all the press releases seemed to hit the major media markets), they were already planning a second “awareness” ad. This is in spite of the fact that Strong4Life chairman, Ron Frieson, said in a May 2011 interview on The Today Show that the program transitioned through three phases: Phase 1 — Awareness, Phase 2 — Activate, and Phase 3 — Solutions.

As Frieson described it in the interview, the Activate Phase included three color video spots, which they finally released on YouTube moments after I posted my video calling them out on the absence of these videos.

But it seems that CHOA decided that Phase 1 wasn’t enough, so they went back to the drawing board and released a new awareness ad shortly after the Activate Phase limped out of the gate.

Incidentally, all three Activate commercials have barely over 1,500 views, while “Stop the Cycle” now has 100 times as many.

But I digress…

Let me be clear up front: I don’t hold Hayes, or any of the other production companies, personally responsible for the Strong4Life campaign. They were hired by CHOA to create the ads and they did their job. And as Dr. Rick Kilmer, Clinical Director for the Atlanta Center for Eating Disorders, explained in my interview with him, it is the duty and responsibility of medical professionals to reign in what can be an overzealous advertising team that does not fully appreciate the complexity of the issues.

Rather than take the time to ensure that their ads would not harm children, CHOA gave their marketing department free reign and abdicated their responsibility entirely.

Hayes himself seemed to have a basic grasp on the fact that the behaviors he outlines in the video aren’t the sole domain of fat kids, but he still implies that the difference between fat kids and thin kids is that fat kids engage in unhealthy behaviors more often than thin kids:

The basic idea with this spot was whether you’re overweight or whether you’re obese, you could probably on some level still relate to certain things that happen in this video. Everyone’s eaten pizza with their parents or gone through the drive thru with their parents. It’s just something that happens. It’s when you start maybe combining these elements, they happen more consistently.

The purpose of this most recent ad was to emphasize the responsibility that parents have for the health, and weight, of their children, Hayes explained:

We’re just really trying to communicate that the parents played a huge role in children. The issues that people usually have as adults can usually be traced back to childhood in a lot of ways.

But in their February 16 press release announcing the “Stop the Cycle” video, CHOA indicated that parents  in Georgia already agreed that childhood obesity was a problem:

96 percent of parents surveyed see childhood obesity as a serious problem in the state of Georgia, up from 73 percent before the campaign began last fall

But that won’t stop CHOA from blanketing the airwaves with this new ad. According to Hayes, the online version is only the beginning, and that they will “definitely expand” to television. He also went on to explain how he believes a made-for-TV version of “Stop the Cycle” could be even more potent in its condensed form.

So once again, we must question whether these commercials will stigmatize the children who see them. And, once again, CHOA claims the new video does not target children. But just as they could not target the Phase 1 ads at parents without kids picking up on the message, this latest ad does little to prevent the stigma from continuing.

Children aren’t stupid. If this ad runs on television, fat kids will see the video game controllers, the iPods, the school desks, the birthday cakes and, most importantly, the specious claim at the end that 80% of obese kids become obese adults; fat kids will see all of these clues and understand that the man who dies at the end is them in 20 years.

If anything, this new ad is a lateral move.

Meanwhile in my interview with Tim Whitehead, which I will post later this week (fingers crossed), the Vice President of Marketing told me that the only downside to the Phase 1 ads has been that parents enter CHOA with negative expectations. As a result, it seems that Hayes and his team have been hired to combat this unfortunate effect.*

We’re working with them on several videos right now. Documentaries following some kids [from Phase 1] as they go through the Strong4Life program. There’s content so people can go on the website and essentially watch what their program is like and what it’s about.

Hayes’ take on the controversy over Phase 1 seems to be that the media has been hypocritical in complaining about the original black and white ads:

It’s controversy. What can you say about it? The media is saying that that these types of spots are really bad, but at the same time all of the attention has come from the media. It’s like, what came first, the chicken or the egg?

Ah, yes, what came first: the Strong4Life Phase 1 ads that shamed and stigmatized children or the thousands of outraged voices demanding its end? It’s a classic conundrum. But whichever came first, Hayes believes that obesity has been ignored for far too long and that these ads will finally — FINALLY — make this issue a national priority.**

The negative impacts that can happen from [obesity], monetarily from our country’s perspective, is devastating. Some people have said in articles that this may be a little hard to swallow, but this is something that really needs to be talked about, this needs to get pushed as a forefront issue, and I do agree with that completely.

In related news, Jonathan Hayes, Director of Productions at North Avenue Post, has just come out of a 10-year coma, having missed out on the entire War on Fat. As for why obesity cost estimates are a flimsy justification for war, check out Pattie Thomas’ epic article on the highly flawed cost/benefit analysis process in Psychology Today.

For Hayes, “Stop the Cycle” isn’t just a public service announcement, it’s art:

This is like a short film. It’s not really like a 30-second commercial. And in preparing for style we’re just going for truth as much as possible, at least personally. I always strive to tell something that comes off as authentic.

Like CHOA, Hayes doesn’t concern himself with complaints about the negative impact his video may have on children. What matters, as with any good ad, is whether people are discussing the issues.

The best kind of feedback to give when people are commenting is when they’re not actually even commenting on the ad, but they’re commenting on their opinions on the issue. You read stuff like, “Oh this video is so impactful” or “Oh this video is terrible,” then you have other people getting into discussions about the bigger issue. When you look at that it’s like, okay, we served our purpose in terms of whether it be awareness or take action. We’ve evoked some kind of emotion out of someone enough for someone to voice their opinion, and that creates the discussion, and that’s how change happens on a basic level.

Ah yes, change happens because you force people to talk. Nevermind the underlying socio-economic issues that contribute to obesity, which have been completely ignored by CHOA and Strong4Life. No, if you want to end obesity, you have to get people talking about how much obesity sucks… because that’s worked so well for the past decade.

In his attempt to portray the role that food plays in obesity, Hayes attempted to balance the message:

Something that I wanted to personally do with this spot was to not necessarily have the food in a negative light. We want to show the parents essentially in control, but we also want to show that it’s not just parents. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a teacher giving students candy for getting a good grade. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong on a basic, fundamental level with that. That maybe combined with so many other things you start getting mixed messages. Maybe the parents are at home saying “You can’t eat this, you can’t eat this” because they’ve been to the doctor and the doctor said, “Your son needs to change.” And then the son goes to school and then the teacher’s in a very positive light, “Great job, you got an A+, here’s some candy.” Potentially, you’ve got conflicting ideas happening. And something like that for an 8-year-old, for a 12-year-old, that can be confusing on some levels.

So, instead of taking a more nuanced approach to the subject of food and health, the “Stop the Cycle” ad shows a parade of food leading up to a fat man’s death. Yeah, that should clear everything right up for kids.

And that’s without even touching on one of the most explosive issues that “Stop the Cycle” addresses: kids who hoard food, which happens for various reasons, including parents who are over-controlling with food. Kids who are ashamed of their appetites and cravings, or who are afraid of how their parents will react, typically hoard food in an attempt to establish more control over their diet.

When asked if this video might shame kids who are possibly hoarding food out of shame, Hayes deflected the issue:

For me it’s not so much about shame. To shame someone is almost to embarrass them. If you really wanted to shame someone, maybe that scene could happen in a more public place or around other characters. We wanted to keep that almost private in the time. It wasn’t so much dad yelling, being angry, but at the same time it’s not the most sympathetic dad. He’s trying to have a real moment with his kid. On my end, that was more of my intention with that. The reason we included that is that kids hide food. It’s something that happens. And it’s not necessarily overweight or obese children, it could also be kids that love sugar. In a strict household, that kind of stuff can happen. In our eyes, we’re trying to show that this is something that happens. Maybe a parent can relate to that one part of the spot. Maybe they watch that and go, “Oh man, I’ve caught my kids hiding food.” It’s so hard to not get upset or frustrated or emotional and to be a good parent throughout that process. Or maybe it’s a kid watching the spot saying, “I still hide food or I used to hide food.” We’re just trying to relate to as many people as possible. [emphasis mine]

As I already pointed out, based on the research CHOA used in this commercial, 92% of obese adults were not obese kids, and 57% of obese adults had a “normal” BMI. Yet this commercial featuring an obese child who eats his way to an obese death at 32, concluding with this message…

… is aimed at “as many people as possible.”

And let the record show that director and screenwriter for this ad says, “maybe it’s a kid watching the spot.”

As long as this was an internet-only ad, I felt relatively confident that it would go unseen by most children in Georgia, but with the revelation that this ad could be televised, this changes the dynamic considerably.

For me, this interview has called CHOA’s intentions into question. Why are they continuing to build “awareness” in spite of their own research indicates “96 percent of parents surveyed see childhood obesity as a serious problem in the state of Georgia”? Why are they continuing to target children? Why aren’t they moving on to Activate or Solutions?

Well, at least I can answer that last question for them: they don’t have any solutions.

*Yes, that is sarcasm… poor Whitehead and the negative impact his ads are having… boo fucking hoo.
**Yet even more sarcasm.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Duckie Graham permalink
    March 14, 2012 4:16 pm

    And still no research or data released…do you think it’s because they made it up and there is no research…or do you think those doctors, lawyers, and other professionals that were preparing a response looked closer at the research and had an Oh-shit! moment realizing that their research was conducted poorly, clearly misinterpreted, and actually supported our arguments rather than theirs? hmmmm…it’s ghost data maybe? maybe it was written with invisible ink and has since disappeared? hmmm…maybe the data was destroyed by the Illuminati? sucked into a random black hole? spontaneous combustion? buried under a building with Hoffa? Big Foot stole it? My instinct is to call them clowns for fumbling that one…but I respect clowns too much.

    • March 15, 2012 9:40 am

      Perhaps the study is written in Sanskrit and they are working on an adequate translation. Give them the benefit of the doubt, Duckie, they wouldn’t experiment on fat kids without research, right?


  2. vesta44 permalink
    March 14, 2012 5:40 pm

    I’m guessing their “research” fell into a black hole, never to be seen again, because they know if they publish it, so we can see it, we’ll be able to rip it to shreds and show that they rigged the questions to get the results they wanted so they would have a “reason” to go ahead with this campaign.
    Just like all along they’ve been saying that fat kids are bullied anyway, so any additional bullying from this campaign is moot and isn’t going to do any more harm than the bullying those fat kids are already getting. Basically, they’re saying what every bully has always said “If you don’t want to be bullied, then change the behavior/reason you’re being bullied and you won’t be bullied anymore. It’s not up to the bully to change his behavior, it’s up to you to change.”
    Cynical bitch that I am, I’m seeing the campaign not as a way to improve the health of kids in Georgia but as a way to compel parents to bring their children to CHOA for treatment – those fat camps, bariatric clinics, weight loss clinics, etc. Makes me wonder which pharmaceutical companies are associated with them and if they prescribe drugs only from those companies (some clinics associate with one company and only prescribe their drugs for their patients. I found that out from one of my diabetes lists the other day – one of the members went to see her endo about adding short-acting insulin at mealtime, and her endo had a fit, finally prescribed it, but wouldn’t prescribe the cheaper Novolog, prescribed a more expensive brand name instead because that’s who’s associated with the practice).

    • March 15, 2012 9:41 am

      I would have given them the benefit of the doubt, but the fact that they followed up their “awareness” phase with even more awareness (rather than moving on to the so-called “solutions” phase) leads me to believe that this has become about driving business for CHOA. The video of my interview with Tim Whitehead will have another nugget that suggests the same thing.


  3. March 14, 2012 7:16 pm

    They are shaming people who are gamers. I’m tired of gaming being seen as the go to explanation for why kids are fat. It’s not because they’re sitting on their butts playing video games 24/7. Maybe adults do that, but kids have that obligation called school. Either way, it’s demonizing video games, and there’s been far too much of that. Apparently adults just can’t get over technology, and keep treating it as the new Elvis.

    Stop the Cycle has very little to do with actually fighting obesity, and serves more as the fetishistic fantasy CHOA and Strong4Life have about how fat people live. In their world, fat people are fat because they behaved badly. This is how small children think, in black and white. They don’t seem to get that they’ve created a body horror themed ad, that will terrify children. They don’t care that children will starve themselves because this ad frightens them so much. They’re too busy marveling over their little ad, and what an artistic genius it is. It’s no more artistic, than a comedian making a fat joke.

    The problem is people will be harmed, because our society says that fat people are fair game when it comes to almost anything. The Stop the Cycle ad, looks like a fetish video to me. I hope one day CHOA and Strong4Life realize in their zeal to combat fat people, they’ve created an ad that shows they’re obsessed with fat people, to a point of treating them as an object of desire. By this I mean, they’ve created their elaborate fairy tale around fat people, to such an extent they have shown they obsess over fat people and their lives, the way a teenage girl obsesses over a celebrity. I don’t know what disgusts me more, the ad itself, or these people from CHOA and Strong4Life essentially getting off on their disgust fetish for fat people.

    • March 15, 2012 3:27 am

      Fatness aside, some people do have serious gaming issues. I have had to move out of one of my old apartments because my old roommate lost his job due to his gaming being his main priority. I also have a friend who’s husband’s gaming cause their divorce.

      • vesta44 permalink
        March 15, 2012 9:19 am

        It’s funny though, most of the people I’ve seen with gaming issues aren’t fat. There are plenty of thin people who spend hours a day in front of their televisions, playing video games, or on their computers playing games for hours on end. And people don’t castigate them for their lack of exercise or how they eat – they’re told that’s it’s unhealthy to spend that much time gaming because they’re retreating from reality, they’re not interacting with spouses/families/children/parents, that they don’t have a “real” life outside of their gaming.
        But let a fat person do that, and it’s all about how lazy fat people are for spending any time gaming or on their computers. If it’s unhealthy for a fat person to spend a lot of time gaming, then it’s just as unhealthy for a thin person to do the same.

      • Kala permalink
        March 15, 2012 10:56 am

        You’ll find addictive behavior about any number of things. I’ve known people who compulsively read books or who compulsively exercise. I find that those people who are most likely to do nothing but play a video game a week, are just as likely to start doing the same thing with something else.

        My significant other plays a lot of Starcraft, although I’m more of a console gamer myself. Sometimes we watch pro tournaments for a few games. The pro gamers themselves are usually pretty thin, most of the commentators are as well.

        • March 15, 2012 11:54 am

          I think you’re right about that, Kala. Compulsive behavior is probably more of a genetic trait than a personality flaw. It’s the people whose attention is consumed by the object of their interest, and it has little to do with their bodies.


        • Kala permalink
          March 15, 2012 2:45 pm

          I definitely think that’s probably the case.

          I play games sometimes in binges, but that’s only because there can be weeks where I can’t get to play and I’m in the middle of a story.

          My significant other on the other hand, has a less healthy relationship. I remember he binged on Elder Scrolls Oblivion for days in a row, sleeping maybe a few hours in between binges (thin half-Korean man, btw). But then he got over it, and he’ll just binge from time to time on his code for work, or his code for some personal project.

    • March 15, 2012 9:46 am

      My opinion is that there are people like me who can’t even look at a screen without going into a zombie state. Many people can turn on a game, play, then turn it off and go do other things. I turn them on and play and play and play and play and play and suddenly realize it’s been three days. Of course, that was all before I had children and other shit to do. But that’s why I avoid TV too… it’s a mental vacuum and it doesn’t even matter what’s on. If we’re at a restaurant and there’s sports on (and I hate sports), my eyes are glued to the screen.

      So, I don’t think it’s the video games necessarily, but I think there is something about video entertainment that for some people, like myself, is so mesmerizing that it’s easy to fall into a sedentary lifestyle because if it. Of course, as vesta said, there are TONS of thin gamers who are completely sedentary as well. It doesn’t matter WHY people are sedentary (a person can be just as addicted to reading and that’s STILL a sedentary activity), what matters is that sedentary lifestyles can lead to poor health. So, it’s more about knowing your own weaknesses and limitations and trying to work with them to keep yourself healthy (if that’s your desire).

      I think you’re totally right about fetishizing the fatty lifestyle. This is all about reinforcing the stereotypes that all fat people are gluttonous sloths, nothing more.


  4. LittleBigGirl permalink
    March 14, 2012 7:26 pm

    The food hoarding issue hits a real nerve with me because I think it contributed directly to my binge eating disorder. Social stigma (like the kind CHOA is perpetuating) that creates “bad” food and villianizes the people who eat the “bad” food is what helps create the desire to hoard food and binge in secret. I grew up in a house where “bad” food had to be put up on top of the fridge or on a special shelf or in the back of the cabinet. My dad’s top dresser drawer was full of chocolate – I know because that’s where I got it. My mom also had a chocolate drawer in the kitchen. Candy was “don’t ask, don’t tell” in my house from the time I was little…so much so that by the time I was an adolescent I knew to go up to my room and eat all the candy bars I got on the way home from school at once so there wouldn’t be any “evidence” of my “sin.”
    I can’t help wondering what my relationship with candy would be like if it had been treated differently – put in a normal place and treated like a normal thing to eat as long as it was in moderation and in balance with all the other food available. I think it would have gone a long way towards creating a less dysfunctional relationship with sugar, and with food in general.

    I am only sadly realizing years later how my mother’s problems with food and body image helped create the problems I have. I don’t blame my mom she was a victim too – a victim of the diet industry and all the health “experts” who were convinced that you had to be thin to be healthy. They made her hate herself and made her afraid for herself and me because we were “fat” and therefore “unhealthy.” She would hang up her too-small jeans on the closet as motivation, and then go sneak a chocolate bar in the kitchen and hate herself. She knew about fat, she knew about calories, she knew how much fat and how many calories were in every damn piece of food in the house. She knew about exercise. She knew about exercising to burn calories and how high you had to get your heart rate for it to count. She knew, but didn’t understand, how no matter how fewer calories she ate and how much more exercise she did she couldn’t lose the weight.

    You see, I had a mother who was very VERY aware of food choices and health choices and supposed obesity risks…and I still managed to get fat and f’d up. “Bad” food is bs. Weight loss = health is bs. And CHOA’s “Awareness” is bs. Polish the same turd they shoveled at my mom 20 yrs ago all you want, it’s still a turd. How dare they.

    • March 15, 2012 9:49 am

      Your story is so familiar to me, and to so many other people. Parents with body image and food issues pass their attitudes on like a virus. So what does CHOA do? Create a video that is certain to inspire more body image and food issues. Great job, CHOA!

      But I’m glad that you realize your mom was a victim too. We don’t need to be like CHOA and blame the victims of a weight-based health culture for doing EXACTLY what they’ve been taught to do. Instead, let’s place the blame where it belongs, on organizations like CHOA that reinforce this nonsense.

      I hope that things have gotten better for you and your mother, and that you continue to grow stronger and healthier in your lives.


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