Something Raw —
Yesterday I shared my interview with Jonathan Hayes, Director of Productions for North Avenue Post, who directed the “Stop the Cycle” commercial. Today, I have an interview with David Stuart, an independent production artist who directed and shot the original Phase 1 and Phase 2 TV spots and print ads, including the billboards.
My goal with these interviews is to illustrate the comments of Dr. Rick Kilmer, Clinical Director of the Atlanta Center for Eating Disorders. In my interview with Dr. Kilmer said:
I’ve learned this in the field that even misguided, well-intended advertising folks can come up with provocative and powerful ads which don’t help and actually cause damage. And it’s our job as the medical professional folks to guide them and say, “No you can’t do that.”
My point is not to say that Jonathan Hayes and David Stuart are bad people who hate fat children. My point is to demonstrate that advertising people should not be given free reign in public health campaigns, particularly when it comes to obesity.
The blame for the creation of these commercials, as well as their long-term effects on the children of Georgia, is squarely on the shoulders of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA), and everyone who had a hand in creating and approving these ads.
While searching for the creative teams responsible for the production of the ads, I stumbled across David Stuart’s portfolio, which included both the offensive black and white Phase 1 ads and a cheerier set of color ads for Phase 2. Phase 2, as you may recall, is the “Activate” phase, which was to follow the stark Phase 1 ads and emphasize how being active makes you feel good.
In a May 2011 interview on The Today Show, Strong4Life chairman Ron Frieson explained how Phase 1 was temporary and would be followed by Phase 2:
And as we go forward with this campaign, the ads that are to follow are directed more at healthy eating and kids encouraging their parents to get involved.
The second part of the campaign we call Activate, so you’ll see Maya and you’ll see the rest of her counterparts become much more active, extremely happy about their journey to become more healthy.
The “ads” Frieson referred to turned out to be a smokescreen, intended to deflect criticism that Phase 1 was too harsh. Stuart wasn’t sure if the color ads ran on television in Georgia, but we know that they only released the color ads on January 24, just after I released my video pointing out the absence of Phase 2.
Instead, as I revealed yesterday, CHOA is talking about creating a TV version of the “Stop the Cycle” ad, which would be the second “awareness” campaign CHOA has released with nary a mention of the “activate” or “solutions” phases Frieson refers to.
Then, while combing through Stuart’s portfolio I found a Phase 2 ad that was not released on Strong4Life’s YouTube page and I had never seen anywhere else before.
This ad completely floored me, not because of its content or anything, but because it raises a whole host of questions about how CHOA and Strong4Life came to decide on stigmatizing fat kids as the best approach. Clearly CHOA requested a series of ads that did not necessarily target fat kids alone. Rather, they had a more diverse message aimed at kids of many sizes. So, the question is, why did they abandon it?
Stuart reveals a few details, but ultimately it is the leadership of CHOA that must answer for their decisions.
CHOA brought the basic idea to Stuard and as director, Stuart’s job was to “put a look and a feel together for the imagery in the TV spots.”
The one thing they said they wanted to do was the black and white, that was pretty much it. And they also wanted to shoot the kids on a clean white cyc wall. I was going for something a little darker. A little more of a sense of isolation to it. Just a general look and feel that I thought would fit the tone of what was going on. This wasn’t a happy, feel-good campaign. [emphasis mine]
He was sure as hell right about that.
And the ads definitely achieve his goal of darkness and isolation. The problem is that this darkness and isolation is aimed at children, and that is a potent message for any child, let alone a fat child who may already be feeling isolated because of social stigma.
But Stuart’s understanding was that Phase 1 was temporary and intended to raise awareness, as CHOA has claimed all along:
The idea was this was a three phase campaign. The first black and white stuff was designed to get people’s attention. It was sort of a shock and pull them into the campaign. And then they moved onto the second phase, which was the Fit4Life, here’s a solution to the problem. Here’s where we go from there.
Although Stuart believes they’ve moved on to Phase 2, Strong4Life and CHOA have not. Instead, they have simply gone back to the drawing board and begun Phase 1 again with a different ad. We have yet to hear a legitimate solution for childhood obesity in Georgia and we aren’t going to because there is no solution.
The Phase 2 ads were shot 1.5 months after the Phase 1 ads, which essentially means that the kids in the Phase 2 ads aren’t any different from the kids in the Phase 1 ads, except instead of sitting sullen in a folding chair, they run around happily.
But the black and white phase, they are definitely still running that. Black and white was just shock and awe to get people talking. Here’s a solution, here’s what we do about it. That was the purpose of the second phase.
One of the more interesting nuggets to come out of this interview completely destroys one of CHOA’s main talking points: these were just child actors, so no real damage was done:
Patty Gregory, a spokeswoman at Children’s Healthcare, said the ad campaign started with focus groups and a casting call. The child actors, all Georgia residents at the time, were “fully informed about how it was going to be depicted,” she said.
But Stuart says otherwise:
Not all the little kids were actors. We wanted some tension and some awkwardness. We didn’t want it to feel scripted, so we didn’t prepare them at all. We just brought them in and gave them their lines the day of the shoot. We wanted to do this kind of very awkward, just kind of staring at the camera and unscripted. We also had them ad lib a bit too, so if they wanted to tweak what was going on with the script, we let them do that. We used a lot of takes. That was thought out, should we give them the lines or not, but we decided just to bring them and just to have them read it cold. The combination of that and being real kids and never having been on a big set before all helped in pushing this message and getting it ready to go. [emphasis mine]
In order to draw the raw emotion out of these kids, they used some kids who were not “real” actors and they did not let them read the script in advance. All of this was discussed and thought out in advance.
That’s why Grace chokes on her words.
That’s why Andrew looks so uneasy confronting his “mom.”
That’s why Maya fidgets uncomfortably as the camera reveals her body in a shirt too small for her body.
So, I asked Stuart if they were concerned that taking part in these videos might have a negative impact on the kids.
We did a casting and that was one of our concerns. Obviously we didn’t want to get really sensitive kids in there and have them be teased or something bad happen to them later. So, that was a big consideration. Before we did the spots, they knew exactly what was going on, we just didn’t give them their lines. They were all very aware, the parents were all very aware, of what the spots were going to be used for. So, in that sense it was no surprise. All of the kids were interested, the parents were interested, in the program, they were interested in taking part in the program. The kids all knew what was going on. They all felt like it was a good cause and a good purpose, so they were all very aware of what the spots were going to be. [emphasis mine]
I was a child model.
And my STANDard comes from my modeling portfolio.
And I gotta tell ya, it was always interesting and exciting to be chosen to be in an ad and to go to the big studio and have everybody fawning and fussing over you. In fact, I even did a PSA of my own once where I stuck a knife into an outlet to warn of the importance of outlet covers.
Does this mean I understood the subject matter enough to make an informed decision? Nope. And I seriously doubt that these kids did either. If you tell a child that they are going to star in a commercial that will help children get healthy, then yes, they are going to feel good about what they are doing. That does not justify the effect these ads may have on the kids that were in them.
In fact, the only two children that I have seen defending the ads are Chloe McSwain, the home-schooled child actor with boatloads of self-esteem, and Maya Walters, who seems to have engaged in unhealthy weight control practices and whose mother is a tireless weight loss advocate. But we haven’t heard from Grace or Andrew or Kevin or this kid or the other kids whose ads may not have made the final cut.
And what about the thin kid? Did he do a black and white ad talking about his sedentary lifestyle? And why didn’t Strong4Life include that ad on their YouTube page?
I’m not sure why they haven’t used that one. Maybe something that’s going to run later, but they decided not to use at this point. He was actually an actor, he was real talent. We did some other spots, we had some thinner kids, more fit kids, along with the heavier set kids. But I guess they wanted to show the transition from being overweight or obese to healthy. This is what you can aspire to be. [emphasis mine]
And what is the primary cause of that transition to health? Oh yeah, getting colorized. And yes, fat kids of Georgia, you too can transition from obesity to health by simply changing your shirt and smiling!
Incidentally, Stuart confirmed that the thin child did not do a black and white ad.
As to the controversy surrounding the ads and the fear that it may trigger eating disorders in children, Stuart reminds us of the bigger picture:
There’s been some feedback from some groups. Obviously there’s people that are incensed about the approach, but it’s probably the most successful campaign we’ve ever done. It’s still generating press after eight or nine months, so it’s been very successful.
In fact, they’ve been so successful that Stuart said, “They’re thinking about this campaign and style and using it in California.”
That’s right: not only have other cities in Georgia requesting the ads, but an organization in California has expressed interest in using a similar campaign statewide in California, according to my followup with Stuart.
So it seems that Strong4Life is just the beginning of our fight against the stigmatization of fat children
In fact, just yesterday Misti Piskura shared this photo of a poster created by the Pennsylvania Medical Society that she took at her doctor’s office.
It seems the War on Fat has become the War on Fat Children, and we are on the front lines of that battle, whether we like it or not.