New York City Defends Health Ads That Frighten the Viewer
The city’s health department uses no sugar-coating in its latest ads, which feature images of overweight people whose mobility is impaired to warn of the dangers of ever-growing portions of unhealthy food and soft drinks.
The ads are the latest installment in a campaign by the Bloomberg administration to jolt New Yorkers out of bad health habits; other ads, which have run in the transit system and on local broadcast outlets and the Internet, have depicted smokers who lost fingertips or their ability to speak normally.
The city’s approach — in one recent ad it sharpened its message by editing off a model’s leg — has drawn some criticism for its negativity. But it is not the health department’s first brush with controversy: In 2009, it ran an ad that suggested drinking a can of soda a day could add 10 pounds of fat a year. Internal e-mails exposed dissent about that claim among officials of the department.
On a lighter note, the department has been running an ad that claims a person would have to walk the three miles from Union Square in Manhattan to Brooklyn to burn off thecalories in a 20-ounce soda.
The department explained its approach on Sunday in a statement: “When science tells us that smoking does not cause lung cancer or that obesity is not driving an epidemic ofType 2 diabetes, we will stop depicting those facts in ads. Until then we are going to accurately convey the facts in our advertising — advertising that has helped to successfully reduce smoking in New York City to a historic low of 14 percent, saving thousands of lives.”
The ads are far from the first to try to frighten people away from risky behavior. Startling and disgusting imagery has been a staple of prevention ads for decades, even beforean egg sizzling in a frying pan represented “your brain on drugs.”
That ad, which had its debut in 1987 and has been copied and parodied ever since, was a vivid counterpoint to the “Just say no” campaign led by Nancy Reagan, the first lady. It was an experiment that sparked a variety of arresting messages, said Steve Pasierb, president of the Partnership at Drugfree.org, then known as the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.
Still, Mr. Pasierb said, scare tactics do not always have the desired effect. As an example, he cited efforts to reduce cigarette smoking among teenagers by running ads that depicted diseased lungs and other potential long-term effects. Focus groups and other studies of effectiveness showed that teenagers were undeterred and continued to take up smoking, he said.
“Folks tell us all the time: ‘You need to tell kids that doing drugs is going to kill them,’ ” Mr. Pasierb said. But because “14-year-olds think they’re bulletproof,” he said, scare tactics like that rarely work.
“The definition of a scare tactic is a non-credible risk message,” Mr. Pasierb said.
Beth Anne Sacks, a Manhattan actress and singer who posed for one of the ads the city health department started running last month, said she herself was not scared by the ads, especially the one showing her trudging up the stairs of a subway station. Despite having been paid $300 for her appearance, Ms. Sacks said the ads would not be effective with obese people like her and suggested that the health department instead try to inspire overweight people to eat fresh fruit and vegetables and get more exercise.
In Miami and some other cities, local health departments are doing just that: In a campaign called Make Healthy Happen, residents of South Florida are being encouraged to walk more and to make wiser choices at vending machines.
“We wanted to be more positive with how we dealt with it,” said Ann-Karen Weller, who is overseeing the campaign, which was financed by a $14.7 million grant of federal stimulus money in 2010.
Ms. Weller said the department would not know how effective the campaign had been until its results were measured later this year.
In Grand Rapids, Mich., a three-year campaign called Project Fit wrapped up at the end of December. Dr. Hye-Jin Paek, who researches health-related communications, said the positive message used there was less likely to have the unintended consequences of victimizing obese people.
Dr. Paek, who recently left the faculty of Michigan State University to return to South Korea, said her research on anti-smoking ads concluded that “fear appeals could work, but most of the time could backfire.” She said “a wealth of literature” showed that appealing to people’s fears was not effective in reducing tobacco or marijuana smoking. It may be more useful in preventing the use of highly addictive substances like methamphetamine, she said.
Mr. Pasierb cited shocking ads aimed at cutting methamphetamine use in Montana as the sort of scare tactic that may sometimes be necessary. But he cautioned that with cigarette smoking and teenagers, a message of empowerment was significantly more effective.
He cited the Truth campaign of the American Legacy Foundation, whose ads depicted young people sounding off to tobacco companies. In one, antismoking campaigners pile 1,200 body bags outside the Manhattan offices of one company to illustrate what they said was the daily death toll from smoking.
“You need a multitude of approaches,” Mr. Pasierb said. “No one ad is right for all people.”