In 2011, about 40% of Georgia's children were overweight or obese. Doctors at the state's largest children's hospital knew it was a recipe for big public health issues down the road, but doing something about it was a different matter.
Hospital officials had seen survey results showing half of Georgians didn't think obesity was a problem. More disconcerting, 3 out of 4 parents with an obese child didn't think anything was wrong.
“There was a major denial issue here,” recalled Linda Matzigkeit, chief administrative officer at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. “We had the second-highest rate of childhood obesity in the country.”
They knew how to help parents help their kids—but how could they prod the parents to act? The answer they hit on was to antagonize them.
Around the same time, Atlanta was buzzing about shocking TV ads about another big problem, methamphetamine use. The ads were hard to watch and upset viewers—showing teens being dumped at emergency rooms, very young addicts engaging in prostitution and kids screaming in agony. But people were talking about them. Everybody had at least heard there was meth problem.
That's what Children's Healthcare of Atlanta wanted to do with child obesity—force a conversation.
Inspired in part by the meth campaign, the hospital jolted parents—and stirred up plenty of criticism— with TV ads and billboards featuring pictures of overweight children, many with messages that subtly criticized parents. One, for example, said, “Big bones didn't make me this way. Big meals did.”
It was an unusually risky ad campaign, but the kind of risk healthcare organizations and advertising experts say can pay off if done right. From local hospitals to major insurers, from major multifaceted health systems to pharmaceutical companies, few across the spectrum of healthcare seek to wade into controversy in their advertising. But sometimes, they start conversations that are important, and can be effective, even if they make some uneasy.
Matzigkeit said Children's Healthcare officials knew they would offend people after pretesting the obesity campaign in focus groups, and some said the ads made them uncomfortable. That was the idea.
“It was intended to wake everybody up,” Matzigkeit said.