Is obesity the new smoking?

Tree Elven asks if obesity ad is effective health warning or body shaming

With the debate raging following Cancer Research UK's recent campaign, Tree Elven looks at obesity in advertising.

Tackling Taboos in Advertising

Obesity cancer ad.jpg

Health risks of obesity

Cancer Research UK’s latest cancer awareness campaign mimics the “extremely effective” tobacco ads of yore in a bid to make everyone in general more aware of the health dangers of obesity, and to reduce junk food advertising to children in particular.

Not unreasonable, you might think, yet the ad has taken some flak for ‘fat-shaming’. Critics view body size as personal; being ‘overweight’ is too often subservient to societal mores, they say, and not to be automatically equated with harmful life choices.

Advertising is increasingly tackling taboos - think Bodyform’s #BloodNormal and Lynx’s Men In Progress - but are new ones are being created in today’s ‘no offence to anyone’ environment?

Just days after the CRUK ad, US singer-songwriter Miley Cyrus’ new video Mother’s Daughter came out. The video, which had racked up over 29 million YouTube views at time of writing, provoked debate with its inclusion of obese model and actress Angelina Duplisea.

The history of fat in advertising

Looking back at the history of fat in advertising, it’s largely consisted of plugging weight-loss products aimed at women and loaded with ‘looking better’ implications. But the health message of ‘feeling better’ has usually been there too, with fitness, fashion and freedom top of the list in a gal’s life, not just admiring ogles from the opposite sex.

Humour has played a leading role in portraying the topic, very often with men as the ample butt of the joke.

With the privations of the Second World War still well within living memory, fizzy antacid Alka Seltzer struck a clever note in the 1960s with this pie-eating ad, which made no bones about who’s responsible if you feel bad after over-eating, but did it with humour. This one-minute No Matter What Shape Your Stomach Is In also became a classic for them.

More recently, in 2004, this 20-second Brazilian spot for Companhia Athletica hit the funny spot.

Fat-shaming and fat phobia

Then things got more serious, with fat-shaming and fat phobia entering the vocabulary and fat activists arguing that fat is personal and does not need to be ‘tackled’ by a multi-million-dollar weight-loss industry in order to fit people (usually women) into some societal ‘perfection’ box.

Pretty much everyone in London will remember 2015’s ‘beach-body ready’ posters in the Underground, and the slew of reactions it provoked, from cleverly super-imposed images to robust favourite, ‘Fuck off’. (Can you remember the product it was for, though?)

Personal responsibility patterns shift with the decades, along with increased freedoms.

Weight Watchers ads have been around for decades: this late 2018 WW (as it’s now called) campaign positions weight loss as achievement, wellness, and enjoyment. Pretty personal.

Obesity as lifestyle choice

Which brings us back to Cancer Research UK’s obesity/smoking campaign, standing right at the inter-section of public and personal as public health resources like the NHS struggle with mounting demands caused in some degree by ‘lifestyle choices’.

Although smoking is still the main cause of cancer, the number of UK smokers is in decline while obesity is on the rise, forming a significant factor in 13 cancers and outstripping smoking as the main cause of liver, kidney, ovarian and bowel cancer, says the charity

Do you think the CRUK posters are an intelligent and effective way to reach a broad audience and encourage personal responsibility, or a scaremongering gimmick that is indeed guilty of fat-shaming?

Tree Elven is a London-based media catalyst and founder of ADDS at - an infotainment site whose only content is advertising. For more ‘outsider information’ and the opportunity to showcase your own creative work, check out the ADDS Club.

Last updated 21 January 2022