The California-based organization, First 5, began a new campaign to fight childhood obesity by using the image of a photoshopped chubby girl.
The original image pictured a healthy looking girl drinking from a carton of milk and was enhanced for the organization’s campaign.
According to the Huffington Post, the picture went viral after author Marilyn Wann placed the original and photoshopped images side by side and then posted them on Facebook and Twitter. Wann later wrote that children should be protected from manipulation such as the First 5 ad.
“If public health messages lie like this why should people trust them?" Wann said.
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First 5, a cigarette-tax funded state organization focused on providing health care and educational services for children in their first five years, is accused of “fat shaming” young children with the ad.
Chief of Communications Lindsay VanLaningham defended the ad, arguing that it was intended for parents to view real-life consequences of childhood obesity.
First 5 published two ads, one featuring a black girl and another featuring a Vietnamese one and hoped to target minority audiences in poor urban areas that are increasingly preyed upon by junk food companies.
Karen Hilyard, a health communication researcher at UGA, said highlighting a single health risk without providing preventable steps often leads to denial or other “dysfunctional” behaviors. She pointed to research at the University of Melbourne, which found that healthy eating, exercise and a positive body image more often contributes to weight loss in children than targeted “fat shaming” ads.