The JCDecaux company, an outdoor advertising company that manufactures billboards and other platforms for ads, on Thursday announced that it was pulling a nationwide billboard campaign intended to raise awareness of the issue of child obesity after the ads were widely criticized as shaming overweight children.
The announcement came hours after the Israeli Pediatric Association denounced the campaign, calling the ads “repulsive and humiliating” and urging their immediate removal. The association said the campaign could do more harm than good and “may encourage feelings of rejection among children who suffer from this problem.”
The series of controversial ads prompted a widespread backlash in recent days, with a slew of condemnations from healthcare professionals and angry reactions across social media. It consists of various posters depicting overweight children alongside the taglines “One in every four children in Israel is overweight,” and “Help prevent child obesity.”
One placard displays the face of an overweight child with his facial features digitally shrunk to comically small proportions, followed by the text: “When your child gains weight, his smile shrinks.” Another shows a child’s bare, bulging torso and the underline “Most cases of depression in children are linked to their appearance.” A third is composed of a simple drawing of a seesaw with three “stick” children lifted into the air on one end and one overweight child weighing down the other.
The response to the images has been overwhelmingly negative. Prof. Eli Somech, who heads the Pediatric Wing at Holon’s Wolfson Medical Center, said that there was a need for a long-term national strategy to educate children and parents on healthy nutrition and exercise through a positive, encouraging prism. But, he said, “in this campaign Israel’s children were used for commercial, populist ends.”
In a letter of complaint to the Consumer Protection Authority, Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, chairman of the National Council for the Child, said the campaign “causes undue harm to overweight children and could lead them to take drastic action or make them the objects of ridicule.”
Internet denizens were infuriated by the ads, with popular and self-confessed overweight blogger Sharon Reuveni writing, “This campaign does not contain even a smidgen of compassion. Don’t confuse compassion with pity.”
Facebook users were also angry. On the JCDecaux company page, one commenter wrote: “Shame on you for your cruel advertisement.” Another suggested: “Please swallow your pride, admit you made a terrible mistake and remove this despicable campaign from our streets.”
The campaign is a private initiative, part of what the company says is a yearly tradition in which it invites various ad agencies to produce campaigns on a chosen subject of social importance, with previous years’ subjects being environment protection, road safety and pet adoption.
“We give complete freedom to the advertising agencies,” JCDecaux said in an earlier statement. “We are sorry for the feelings of some parts of the public toward this campaign. Its purpose is not to cause distress or ridicule children but to convey the importance of the message and raise awareness of health and the implications of child obesity.”