A series of graphic TV ads that are part of a new public health campaign show an off-putting substance as yellow and lumpy as boarding school custard roiling in a way that wouldn't be out of place in an Alien film. It is meant to be body fat, specifically ''toxic'' visceral fat that sits deep inside the body and smothers vital organs, such as the heart.
The Live Lighter campaign is a joint venture between the West Australian Heart Foundation and the Cancer Council, and its ads are based on the same behavioural principles as the highly successful National Tobacco Campaign, which has been confronting Australians with images of tarry lungs, gangrenous toes and oozing arteries since 1997.
Using anti-smoking-style tactics in a weight-management context is novel, but also controversial. Critics claim such campaigns compound the stigma surrounding obesity and that they have little effect. Some say scare tactics just make people shut down, a criticism that has also been aimed at road safety and skin cancer awareness campaigns.
However, Simon Chapman, the renowned tobacco control activist and professor of public health at the University of Sydney, says one of the most persistent myths surrounding public health is that ''scare tactics don't work''.
''Overwhelmingly, what you find from people who have made changes is that … it was fear about adverse consequences which motivated them,'' he says.
There have been attempts at positive health messages around tobacco control, he says, ''ads showing wholesome young people slotting basketballs through hoops … [but] they had zero cut-through; an absolute wallpaper effect.''
Research has shown that humour, too, is an ineffective motivator, says David Hill, a behavioural researcher and former chairman of the National Expert Advisory Committee on Tobacco, who has been instrumental in both the National Tobacco and Live Lighter campaigns. ''Non-smokers love humorous anti-smoking ads,'' he says.
When people criticise scare tactics, Chapman says, ''they are often getting confused with whether an ad is likeable rather than whether it is effective.''
Hill refers to the strategy used in the Live Lighter and National Tobacco Campaign ads as a ''doctor's-eye view'' rather than a scare tactic. ''[The NTC] was called a shock and a scare campaign, but it's the truth. It's actually showing what's going on in there. I think we face a similar situation with overweight/ obesity. The trends are awful and, at the very least … we owe it to the public to show what's really happening inside their bodies.''
Both Chapman and Hill do acknowledge, however, that obesity brings a special set of challenges.
There are people, Chapman says, ''who do have physiology that makes it very difficult for them to lose weight … and there is a serious discussion to be held about the consequences for those people who feel they are being stigmatised and left behind.''
''Losing weight is tougher, I accept that,'' Hill says. ''But these are desperate times so we have to try.'' A comprehensive series of evaluations is in place to track the effectiveness of the campaign over time, he says.
The author of Fat Chance: My Big Fat Gastric Band Adventure, Melanie Tait, 32, was put on the first of many diets at age seven. The result? By 2009, when she underwent weight-loss surgery, she had about 50 kilograms to lose. Tait has now lost a lot of that weight but says she still battles daily with appetite and a body that's reluctant to shrink.
Asked to look at the Live Lighter ads, she admires the production values and agrees the graphic images ''certainly stick in there … but at the same time I don't think fat people need to be associated with being toxic any further than they already are.
''I think it would give pause to anyone who does have a weight issue but, that said, I don't think there are many people who are overweight or obese who aren't already well aware of what it's doing to their body. They already know it's a problem and they wish they could fix it.''