- By Thomas StackpoleThomas Stackpole is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. A native of Martha's Vineyard, MA, he received his bachelors degree in Political Theory from Bates College, and studied at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco. Previously, he covered climate and energy for Mother Jones and politics for the New Republic and MSN News, and once sailed from Maine to the Panama Canal, where he spent at least one afternoon playing coconut bocce on a desert island.
“When your child gains weight, his smile shrinks,” read the caption under a cartoonishly ballooned head with a shrunken face beaming from the center. “One in four children in Israel is overweight,” it continued. The picture hung on a billboard above the streets of Tel Aviv as part of a short-lived anti-obesity campaign sponsored by the French advertising firm JCDecaux, which was roundly attacked for shaming overweight children as depressed, unlovable rejects.
The campaign, which was axed on Friday less than a week after it debuted, was part of a yearly tradition in which JCDecaux invites ad agencies to weigh in on a pressing social issue. Previous campaigns have addressed things like the environment, pet adoption, and road safety. “We are sorry for the feelings of some parts of the public toward this campaign,” the company said in a statement on its Facebook page. “Its purpose is not to cause distress or ridicule children but to convey the importance of the message and raise awareness of health and the implications of child obesity.”
Despite the criticism that was levied against the French firm, the ads, which had been selected as the best submissions, maintained that rotund tots they targeted were very much redeemable, if probably unloved as they are now. One pitch, “Obese child today, fat and ugly tomorrow” allows that, while an unhappy fate surely awaits them if they don’t shape up, there might still be time. Another declared, “Most cases of depression in children are linked to their appearance,” and implored, “Parents, help your children be happy.” It portrayed an overweight torso with a nose drawn in the middle, and the bellybutton shadowed into a frown, to show how overweight kids might feel if people were so cruel as to mock them for their appearance:
A more positive rendering — seen at the top of this post — depicted a seesaw with one child outweighing his three friends who sat on the other, in that it showed such children having friends at all. It repeated the statistic that one in four children in Israel is overweight.
The campaign was immediately attacked on social media and by pediatric organizations. The Israeli Pediatric Association called the ads “repulsive and humiliating,” according to the Times of Israel, and claimed they “may encourage feelings of rejection among children who suffer from this problem.” The chairman of the National Council for the Child, Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, said the campaign “causes undue harm to overweight children and could lead them to take drastic action or make them the objects of ridicule.”
By Friday, the billboards had been taken down. The problem of childhood obesity, of course, remains. According to a recent study by Mount Sinai Global Health in New York and Clalit Health Services in Israel, the United States and Israel have roughly comparable rates of childhood obesity. JCDecaux’s website claims Israel had the world’s fifth highest rate.
The fat-shaming billboards were replaced with a message: “Now the posters are removed — it’s in your hands”