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Rudd Radar

Public Reactions to Obesity-Related Health Campaigns

June 17, 2013

Public health campaigns have emerged across the country to promote behaviors that can help reduce America’s waistline, but several of these campaigns have been criticized for reinforcing stigmatization of obese individuals. Research shows that stigmatization of overweight and obese individuals can exacerbate health effects already associated with obesity, impair weight-loss efforts, and potentially lead to increased weight gain.

In a new study that examined how the public perceives these campaigns, Rudd Center researchers found that campaigns that are viewed as stigmatizing are no more likely to instill motivation for improving lifestyle behavior compared to neutral campaigns. The study was published online in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and highlights the need for careful selection of language and visual content used in obesity-related health campaigns.

More than one thousand adults were randomly assigned to view 10 obesity-related health campaigns that stigmatized obese persons (as identified in pilot research) or 10 campaigns that were more neutral in content. Participants evaluated each campaign and rated to what extent each stigmatized obese people, motivated people to improve lifestyle behaviors, and promoted self-efficacy.

Stigmatizing campaigns were rated as inducing less self-efficacy for behavior change and as having less appropriate visual content. These findings were consistent regardless of participants’ own body weight and across socio-demographic characteristics.

The authors asserted that campaigns that promote specific health behaviors which all individuals can engage in regardless of their body weight, as well as those that avoid stigmatizing depictions of obese persons may be most effective in instilling higher self-efficacy for health behavior change.

“The findings from our study challenge the notion that stigmatization is a necessary component of public health messaging about obesity, and suggest that this approach may be less effective than non-stigmatizing messages in efforts to encourage health behaviors,” said Rebecca Puhl, PhD, lead author and Rudd Center Director of Research and Weight Stigma Initiatives.

The study was co-authored by the Rudd Center’s Jamie Lee Peterson, MA, former Research Associate; and Joerg Luedicke, MS, Statistical Consultant. A video about the study by Dr. Puhl appears on SciVee.