Challenging Dogma - Fall 2007

...Using the social and behavioral sciences to improve the practice of public health.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

“Be A Player” Childhood Obesity PSAs: Good Intentions but Misses the Mark—Tiana Wilkinson

In 2003, Health and Human Services (HHS) teamed up with the Ad Council to create the “Small Step” media campaign, an intervention to curb obesity. The campaign included a childhood obesity component, that in 2005, focused on small steps parents and children could take to improve their nutritional consumption. This included public service announcements (PSAs) as well as online information and activities. In 2007, Dreamworks joined HHS and the Ad Council to release part II of their childhood obesity media campaign. They called it “Be a Player,” and this time, they focused on the importance of daily exercise for children (1). This paper will critique the “Be a Player” PSAs.

At first glance, the “Be a Player” PSAs seem to effectively use advertising theory to market a product: exercise. They created a slogan, a catchy tune and included media icons such as NFL athletes, LPGA athletes and Shrek cartoon characters to promote the product. They marketed their product as “play” instead of “exercise” knowing that “play” would connect more with their audience, kids. They also solicited support from DreamWorks, which has a successful history in using media campaigns to sell their products (1-2).

Here we see that public health PSAs have come a long way from information giving and scare tactics. While this progress is commendable, the “Be a Player” campaign still misses the mark. In this paper, I will argue that this campaign is a faulty intervention to curb childhood obesity because #1: it fails to identify the true barriers to childhood physical activity and as a result, uses the wrong approach, based in the Theory of Reasoned Action, to curb childhood obesity, #2: based on Reactance Theory, the commercial dissuades children from being active and encourages television watching, and #3: the Shrek commercial contributes to childhood obesity due to the character’s link to unhealthy foods.

Theory of Reasoned Action

The Ad Council CEO and President calls the PSAs “motivating and entertaining”(1, p. 2). The hope is that the commercials will stimulate kids to get up and play instead of engaging in sedentary activities like watching television and playing video games. The underlying assumption is that kids are not currently motivated to get up and play and that increasing their motivation will lead to increased play.

This idea is based on the Theory of Reasoned Action, which states that if one feels good about a behavior and it is socially acceptable, then one will do the behavior (3-4). Based on this reasoning, HHS and the Ad Council attempted to create a positive attitude about exercise (play) and show kids that others (like famous athletes and cartoon characters) are playing too. Based on the Theory of Reasoned Action, the children will then want to and intend to play which will lead directly to a change in behavior, increased play.

If attitude and perceived social norms were indeed the current barriers to childhood physical activity, then this would be an effective PSA. However, lack of motivation is not the predominant barrier to exercise for children. Instead, it is a lack of safe space to play. Even if the PSAs succeeded in increasing motivation, the increased desire to play would have no outlet if there were no safe spaces in which children can play.

A 1997 study found that parents rank safety as the number one concern as to whether they would allow their child to play in a given area (5). Another study in 2006 found that intercity families had significantly higher anxiety about neighborhood safety and their kids had less outside physical activity time (6). Yet another study conducted on 7 year olds found that children of parents who perceived their neighborhoods as unsafe were 4 times as likely to be obese compared to children of parents who perceived their neighborhoods to be safe (7).

All of these studies support the argument that safe play spaces are essential if there is to be any increase in childhood physical activity. Another study found an 84% increase in total number of children outdoors and physically active when the grade school left its playground open after school and on weekends for unstructured playtime. The study also found a decrease in sedentary activities with this group of children (8).

When we focus on individual factors (such as television watching), we fail to see the barriers that are beyond the individual’s control. We must take social and environmental factors into account and make neighborhoods safer if we want to truly impact childhood physical activity.

Reactance Theory and The Boomerang Effect

A fast food commercial never tells the consumer “buy my happy meal” and a toy commercial never plays lyrics chanting: “buy legos, buy legos, buy legos.” Instead, these commercials use a more subtle approach of promising happiness, fun, enjoyment and more if one is to buy the product. The consumer is left to feel that they are making a choice to buy the product and in return, they will receive happiness, fun and enjoyment, rather than being told what to do by the commercial (9). In contrast, the athletes and cartoon characters in the “Be A Player” PSAs tell the consumers to “get up and play, an hour a day” or “go online, just don’t stay too long” while in the background, music lyrics are repeating “get up, get up, get up” (1-2). This aggressive push for the product (exercise) would be the same as the fast food or toy company saying, “buy my product.” Mainstream advertisements do not use such a blatant push because they know, based on Reactance Theory, that this strategy will backfire. The “Be A Player” campaign fails to account for Reactance Theory and as a result, a boomerang effect is created where television and video game playing is promoted while physical activity is discouraged.

Reactance Theory was proposed in 1966 by psychologist Jack Brehm to explain how one reacts when they are pressured towards change, thus threatening their freedom of choice (10). “The freedom-threatening influence attempt can backfire in that the pressure toward change created by an influence agent may induce a person to do just the opposite.” (10, p. 390) In essence, Reactance Theory states that no one likes to be told what to do and when told what to do, they react by doing the exact opposite.

While Reactance Theory has its roots in psychology, it has been applied to consumer behavior (10). Individuals were less likely to purchase products when a salesperson was pressuring them to buy it. The pressure to buy was threatening the choice and freedom to buy. The theory was found applicable with both salespersons and mass media advertisement (10). In 1974, a marketing study, conducted on grade school boys, concluded that the more a child felt the commercial was trying to persuade them, the less they liked and trusted the commercial and product (11). More recently, Reactance Theory has been shown to cause a boomerang effect with various public health interventions including flossing, underage drinking and underage smoking (12-15). When applied again to the “Be A Player” PSAs, it can be reasoned that viewers will respond negatively to the PSA’s blatant attempts at persuasion. Instead of motivating and encouraging kids to play, based on Reactance Theory, the viewer is more likely to continue watching television and playing video games. While this was not the intention of HHS and the Ad Council, it cannot be ignored how this benefits the PSA’s corporate sponsors such as PepsiCo, General Mills, Kraft Foods, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola, Subway, McDonald’s, Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network who all donated money for the PSA’s airtime (1). Each of these corporations has something to gain by keeping young viewers in front of the television: further exposure to their programming and advertisement of their products.

Shrek’s Conflict of Interest

While Shrek movie characters were promoting physical activity in the Be A Player PSAs (1), Dreamworks was gearing up for the movie premiere of Shrek, The Third (16). As part of the movie’s promotion, Shrek and his friends were also promoting snacks on Kellogg’s, Pepsico, Masterfoods and McDonald’s packaging (17). An advocacy group called the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood lists some of the snacks Shrek was promoting at this time including: Poptarts, E.L. Fudge cookies, Frosted Flakes, Apple Jacks, M&M’s, Cheetos, Rice Krispies Treats and Happy Meals (17). This use of Shrek characters to promote sugary snacks and unhealthy meals negates nutritional initiatives to prevent childhood obesity, including HHS and the Ad Council’s nutritional PSAs in their “Small Step” campaign.

Responding to viewer feedback, the Shrek PSA was pulled from television for 6 weeks while the movie, Shrek The Third, was released (18). Since then, the Shrek PSA has been put back on the air and Shrek continues to promote sugary snacks. There have been no further attempts to rectify this conflict of interest.


When creating a public health intervention to increase childhood physical activity, we must first study what the barriers are to the behavior, including social and environmental barriers. Only then can we develop an intervention. While playground and neighborhood safety are important barriers to consider, so is the decline in physical activity at school. We must create laws to require gym and recess at schools and direct funds to improve neighborhood and playground safety. This would utilize a power-coercive approach to address the true barriers rather than the normative re-educative approach (19) that HHS and the Ad Council used when they based their PSAs on the Theory of Reasoned Action.

Additionally, when recruiting support from the private sector, we need to question the motives of funding sources that claim they want to help with public health campaigns. We have seen this conflict of interest arise with anti-tobacco commercials created by the tobacco industry (20) as well as prevention of under-age drinking commercials created by the alcohol industry (21). While funding and support is necessary to create powerful public health interventions, we cannot compromise the goal of the intervention in gathering this funding and support.


HHS and the Ad Council made childhood physical activity into a brand by creating a slogan, using popular media icons and a catchy tune in their “Be A Player” PSAs. While this campaign shows how far public health advertising has come it also shows how far it has left to go. The “Be A Player” campaign had good intentions but misses the mark because of three errors. #1 it relied on the Theory of Reasoned Action, missing the true barriers to physical activity. #2 it failed to use Reactance Theory and in so doing, created a boomerang effect where sedentary activities, such as television watching and video game playing, were encouraged rather than discouraged. #3 it failed to see the conflict of interest in having Shrek promote exercise while he also promoted unhealthy snacks.

Future interventions to increase childhood physical activity should use a power-coercive approach to institute legislation and allocate funding to #1 make neighborhoods and playgrounds safer and #2 increase physical activity at school. It is also imperative that we not accept support from private corporations until we have thoroughly assessed their motivation.


  1. Ad Council. HHS Partners with Ad Council and Dreamworks to combat Childhood Obesity. New York, NY: Ad Council.
  2. Ad Council. Childhood Obesity Prevention. New York, NY: Ad Council.
  3. Salazar M. Comparisons of four behavioral theories. AAOHN Journal 1991;39: 128-135.
  4. Ogden J. Some problems with social cognition models: a pragmatic and conceptual analysis. Health Psychology 2003; 22:424-428.
  5. Sallis JF, McKenzie TL, Elder JP, Broyles SL, Nadar PR. Factors parents use in selecting play spaces for young children. Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine 1997; 151: 414-417.
  6. Weir L, Etelson D, Brand D. Parents’ perceptions of neighborhood safety and children’s physical activity. Preventive Medicine 2006; 43: 212-217.
  7. Lumeng JC, Appulgliese D, Cabral HJ, Bradley RH, Zuckerman B. Neighborhood safety and overweight status in children. Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine 2006; 160: 25-31.
  8. Farley TA, Meriwether RA, Baker ET, Watkins LT, Johnson CC, Webber LS. Safe play spaces to promote physical activity in inner-city children: results from a pilot study of an environmental intervention. American Journal of Public Health 2007; 97: 1625-1631.
  9. Moore J and Wells WD. ROI Guidebook: Planning for Relevance, Originality and Impact in Advertising and Other Marketing Communications. Chicago: DDB Needham Worldwide, 1991
  10. Clee MA, Wicklund RA. Consumer behavior and psychological reactance. Journal of Consumer Research 1980; 6: 389-405.
  11. Robertson TS, Rossiter JR. Children and commercial persuasion: an Attribution Theory analysis. Journal of Consumer Research 1974; 1: 13-20.
  12. Rains SA, Turner MM. Psychological reactance and persuasive health communication: a test and extension of the intertwined model. Human Communication Research 2007; 33: 241-269.
  13. Ringold DJ. Boomerang effect in response to public health interventions: some unintended consequences in the alcoholic beverage market. Journal of Consumer Policy 2002; 25: 27-63.
  14. Dillard JP, Lijian S. On the nature of reactance and its role in persuasive health communication. Communications Monographs 2005; 72: 2, 144-168.
  15. Miller CH, Burgoon M, Grandpre JR, Alvaro EM. Identifying principle risk factors for the initiation of adolescent smoking behaviors: the significance of psychological reactance. Health Communication 2006; 19: 3, 241-252.
  16. Shrek. Shrek History. Glendale, CA: Dreamworks
  17. Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Shrek the Third Food Promotions. Boston, MA: Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.
  18. Meltz, BF. Fighting obesity, but fronting for junk food. Boston Globe. May 21, 2007.
  19. Chin R, Benne KD. General strategies for effective change in human systems. In Bennis W et al. (eds.): The Planning of Change (3rd edition), pp. 22-45. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.
  20. Landman A, Ling P, Glantz S. Tobacco industry youth smoking prevention programs: protecting the industry and hurting tobacco control. American Journal of Public Health 2002; 92(6): 917-930.
  21. Giesbrecht N. Roles of commercial interest in alcohol policies: recent developments in North American. Addiction 2000; 95 (Supplement 4): S581-S595.

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  • At December 12, 2007 at 8:12 AM , Blogger Victoria said...

    I agree with you that it is strange how health interventions are demanding ("go out and play") while other products have their benefits highlighted and not demanded. My question is where are these PSAs shown? Only in the city or in places where kids could go out and play safely?

  • At December 14, 2007 at 10:31 AM , Anonymous Deinera said...

    Strong critique. I thought your argument about the use of Reactance Theory was very interesting and looked at a failure of this campaign from a broader perspective.

  • At October 22, 2008 at 11:32 PM , Blogger Salome said...

    Among the eight components of a CSHP model are Physical Education and Family and Community Involvement. GAO studies show that the program strategy identified by experts as most important to prevent or reduce childhood obesity is "increasing physical activity," and that parental and social support for physical activity is associated with increased physical activity.

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