'Stop Sugarcoating' Child Obesity Ads Draw Controversy


But Dr. John Morton, director of bariatric surgery and surgical quality at Stanford University School of Medicine, said the ads are a crucial first step in addressing the issue of childhood obesity.

"To change deep-seated social and physiologic behavior like eating will require enormous work, and these ads will help the family start thinking about prevention," said Morton.

The current ads are the first in a series of phases estimated to be a total $50 million project. The campaign is geared toward parents and caregivers of children who have control over their diet and physical activity.

Stormy Bradley's 14-year-old daughter, Maya, was one of the young girls featured in the ads. Bradley, 40, of Atlanta, said she's had discussions with her daughter about weight and about healthier eating.

Maya wanted to take part in the ad to draw awareness to the issue, Bradley said.

"We knew they were going to be controversial," Bradley added. "But from my point of view, it was necessary to spark a conversation."

But there is another aspect of the campaign raising questions: One of the television ads portrays Maya as having diabetes when, in reality, she does not.

"I don't think it takes away from the credibility of the ad because the emotions and the things she says are similar to what someone who could have the health issue would have," said Bradley, adding that her daughter had high blood sugar levels. "I think she's a face they can relate to."

But the situation may cross an ethical line, according to Timothy Edgar, graduate program director in health communication at Emerson College.

"I would be concerned that if somebody finds out that she doesn't have diabetes, that it could undermine the campaign," said Edgar.

Public health campaigns that have been successful often portray real people with real problems. While the current ad implies a real public health issue, the dramatization by an actor could weaken the message, Edgar said.

Weight issues are among the top reasons why some children are bullied, and some critics said the campaign also singles out the overweight child and could potentially exacerbate the bullying.

"At what point should looking out for their health mean losing the fun of being innocent and young?" one person wrote on the campaign's Facebook page.

Matzigkeit said the children featured in the ads have all been offered nutritional counseling. Maya was paid for her contribution and also took advantage of the counseling.

"This is not about how somebody looks, it's a serious medical issues," said Matzigkeit. "And if they don't believe me, I offer them to come see our clinic."

Bradley knows that discussions about weight can be uncomfortable because she, herself, is battling weight issues.

"This has made her more conscientious about the actions we choose," said Bradley. "You can hate it or love it, but you're still talking about it."

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