No Guts, No Glory – CHOA’s Campaign to Stop Childhood Obesity

In 2011, the buzz started. Friends and I were noticing some unsettling ads in bus shelters around the city. Black and white images of somber overweight children filled the ads, expressing their own discontent with their weight and body images. It made us uncomfortable. Sad even. How dare someone call a kid fat and so publicly shame them?!?!? But that kid IS fat and something DOES need to be done to help them. So is this as wrong and bad as it seems at first glance? That became the center of the debate over meals and on Facebook threads for months to come.

I had the opportunity to hear Tim Whitehead, VP of Marketing & Communications at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA), present at the monthly luncheon hosted by the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) in Atlanta last March. I was interested to learn about the casting of models for this obesity campaign, how the public reacted, and how CHOA ultimately responded.


Facing an Epidemic: Why CHOA Decided to Take Action

From CHOA’s web site:

  • Georgia has the 2nd highest percent of obese children in the United States.
  • Nearly 40% of Georgia’s kids are overweight or obese, which means nearly 1 million kids in our state are facing a medical crisis.
  • Childhood obesity in the United States has tripled since 1980 from 5% to 17%, based on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) conducted by the CDC.
  • For more facts on the epidemic of childhood obesity in our nation, visit:

Doctors at CHOA have seen an increasing number of children facing obesity-related illnesses once only seen in adults such as heart disease, hypertension, liver and kidney disease, and type 2 diabetes. Naturally, CHOA realized there was a need to address this as the epidemic that it is.

Apprehensive about the impact that the ads might have on the self-esteem of overweight children, CHOA did extensive research and early market testing to learn what kids wanted to hear and how they wanted to hear it. The feedback they received? “Don’t sugarcoat it.” Kids wanted to hear the truth.


Raising Awareness: CHOA’s Initial Challenge

Without letting people know how out of control our children’s weight problems had become, CHOA stood little chance of preventing and reversing the epidemic. By boldly addressing the issues facing obese children, CHOA sparked a dialogue that spread like wildfire with “more than 10 million unpaid media impressions in 2011.”


Tracking Progress: The Value of Market Research

As CHOA tested various concepts ranging in degrees of shock-value, they asked themselves how this campaign serves their mission of helping kids – even worrying that these ads might actually go so far as to hurt children.

After the initial campaign launched, CHOA was very proactive in measuring the ads effects on the state’s children. Specifically, they were concerned about the effects these ads might have on bullying. Ultimately, their studies showed a DECREASE in bullying of overweight kids in Georgia.


Next Steps: Combatting and Preventing Childhood Obesity

CHOA very smartly planned a strategy that extends well beyond just pointing out the problem. Their mission of helping kids lead them to the development of a “Strong 4 Life” program to enable children and their families to begin learning healthier eating and fitness habits. The Strong 4 Life program visits schools to educate children, provides free resources to teachers and parents, and hosts fitness fairs around the state.

In addition, recent ad campaigns have focused on parents’ roles in helping their children make healthier choices. These messages target parents as much as children with tips such as “Choose to run around, not sit around.” and “Choose fruit, not fruit flavored.”

Would we have noticed and cared so much about this most recent wave of ads had we not been shocked out of our complacency when confronted by the sad and ominous children whose childhoods were being robbed of them? Surely not in the same way. As I make my way around Atlanta, I am always happy to see a billboard promoting better health. And I’m grateful to CHOA for helping us all take better care of our children.


Learn More
To learn more about CHOA’s efforts to combat childhood obesity, visit: