Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Shrinking Violets

In this traditional time of New Year's resolutions, it is interesting to see how yesterday's story in the Los Angeles Times demonstrates that advertising and e-government are merging in certain sectors. The Small Step campaign from the Department of Health and Human Services aims to reduce obesity by offering up a smorgasbord of discrete diet and exercise tips, techniques, and anecdotes for successful weight loss. Of course, this website also includes a selection of online games for children, even though the sedentary nature of computer play has been seen as one of the contributing factors causing the current epidemic of overweight kids. (See Ian Bogost's work on exergaming for some counterexamples to this trend.)

Ironically, the LA Times article on this incrementalism and the intended gradual transformation of the body by the body politic,"Get the Message? A new media blitz--plus the powers of the federal government, business and advocates--just might get Americans moving," appears in the same issue as a piece on Americans' obsession with the quantification of time: "Going to Extreme Measures: Even as digital countdowns and televised timers fill our waking hours, does anybody really know what time it is?" As we replace analog with digital markers of the dimensions of our social and sexual identities as individuals, does a cultural emphasis on each numeric signpost "naturally" follow? Certainly this anti-obesity campaign explicitly capitalizes on counting down with the corporeal anxieties of a consuming (or reducing) public, as can be seen in the SmallStep Ad Council spots.

The larger concept of social marketing is actually nothing new. The model is the highly effective anti-smoking campaign, The Truth, which includes online games aimed at the youth market designed to occupy idle hands with eating virtual gummi bears, throwing virtual airplanes, or hip hop scratching of virtual records . . . while also exploiting generational mistrust of corporate elders from Big Tobacco.

Media watchers know that the SmallStep.gov campaign is receiving help from McCann-Erickson Worldwide, "leaders in creating demand," who are now creating programs for abstinence as well. Given that McCann markets Sweetex, an artificial sugar substitute, they would seem to be perfectly positioned to promote the Health and Human Services agenda. In addition to work for private pharmaceutical companies, McCann already works globally on public health issues, as they do in the "cancer dolls" campaign in India in which bodily subtraction is intended to be frightening rather than enviable. (Click on image below to enlarge.)

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Blogger Julia Lupton said...

I was fascinated by the article in the LAT. The ad campaign is specifically targeting "family builders": 24-49 year olds with children at home, a group notoriously overemployed and under-exercised. Unfortunately, I can totally identify: my only exercise occurs in "small steps" (the take-the-stairs tip that exemplifies the SS agenda). And, because our household is sports-allergic (for cultural rather than biological reasons), our kids spend almost as much time on the computer as we do. Maybe writing about this ad campaign will actually get me to DO SOMETHING about our bad habits. I was interested as well to learn about "social marketing" (isn't all marketing social ...), and the Truth campaign. There seems to be a de-branding impulse at work here, but one that inevitably involves a re-branding. I am not opposed to branding per se, but the ironies here do abound. Marketing help create American obesity (through its deep links to fast food and to television), and now we are looking to marketing for our salvation from fat as well.

6:21 AM  

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