Thinking about the ethics and politics of public health campaigns

Over the past few years one of my research foci has been that of fat embodiment and obesity politics. This interest builds on my longstanding research on the sociocultural dimensions of health, medicine and public health, as well as the sociology of food and eating and the sociology of the body.

In July 2012 I wrote a piece for The Conversation critiquing a new Australian anti-obesity campaign, LiveLighter. The campaign included visual material and text that sought to evoke disgust (the ‘yuck factor’) about body fat in audiences. I argued in my piece that such strategies need to be examined for the ethical and moral issues they raise. Should health promotion campaigners be attempting to make people feel hatred and revulsion about their own bodies? To what extent are certain individuals and social groups identified by others as disgusting via such campaigns, and as a result subjected to social discrimination and stigma? How do such campaigns reproduce and exacerbate existing social disadvantage?

These questions have been addressed in several other publications of mine since then. In 2013 my book Fat appeared, in which I investigated the historical, social and cultural underpinnings of the disgust and revulsion that fat bodies tend to evoke in contemporary western culture. And I followed up my interest in public health campaigns and their use of strategies that attempt to arouse negative emotions such as disgust, shame and fear in two journal articles that were published recently.

One of these articles, published last week in Critical Public Health, builds on the piece I wrote for The Conversation by exploring the reasons why disgust is used in public health campaigns directed not only at obesity but also other issues, such as tobacco, excessive drinking and illicit drugs. It is entitled ‘The pedagogy of disgust: the ethical, moral and political implications of using disgust in public health campaigns’. Here is the abstract:

The developers of public health campaigns have often attempted to elicit disgust to persuade members of their target audiences to change their behaviour in the interests of their health. In this critical essay, I seek to problematise this taken-for-granted and unquestioned tactic. I assert that the pedagogy of disgust in public health campaigns has significant ethical, moral and political implications. In outlining my argument, the literature on the social, cultural and political elements of disgust is drawn upon. I also draw more specifically on scholarship demonstrating the ways in which disgust has operated in relation to health and medical issues to reinforce stigmatisation and discrimination against individuals and groups who are positioned as disgusting. It is concluded that advocates of using such tactics should be aware of the challenge they pose to human dignity and their perpetuation of the Self and Other binary opposition that reinforces negative attitudes towards already disadvantaged and marginalised individuals and social groups.

The other article was published last month in Fat Studies and is entitled ‘How do you measure up?’ Assumptions about ‘obesity’ and health-related behaviors and beliefs in two Australian ‘obesity’ prevention campaigns’. This article was based on research I undertook using documents reporting on the formative and evaluation research by market research companies that was undertaken for two other Australian anti-obesity campaigns: the ‘Measure Up’ and the ‘Swap It, Don’t Stop It’ campaigns. Analysing these types of documents provides an interesting insight into the mentalities and rationales that underpin their development on the part of public health authorities and the people they employ to develop the content and strategies of their social marketing efforts. This is the abstract:

This article presents an analysis of two related Australian government-sponsored ‘obesity’ prevention campaigns, including documents produced by commercial social research companies reporting the formative research and evaluation of these campaigns. This material is critically analyzed for its underlying assumptions about weight, ‘obesity’ and the public’s health-related behaviors and beliefs. These include the following: the concept of ‘good health’ has meaning and value that is universally shared; to be ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ is to be physically unfit and at risk of higher levels of disease and early death; individuals are responsible for their own health status; individuals lack appropriate information about health risks and providing this information leads to behavior change; and information should be provided in a way that arouses concern and a belief that individuals should make a change. These assumptions are challenged from a critical sociological perspective.

Anyone who would like a copy of these articles can contact me on