June 09, 2016 Farwa Feroze
The Covert Repercussions of Health Promotion
“Don’t kill yourself and us too.”
“Chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?”
When we find ourselves standing in front of a health promotion advertisement, we often only consider the message. What is the campaign promoting against? Perhaps we should stop smoking because it harms not only us, but those around us as well. Maybe we should actively prevent teen pregnancy because it usually leads to an uncomfortable future for the baby. If we take our analysis a step further, we may even consider what tactics are being used to send the message across. Are the creators of this campaign trying to scare us into realizing the consequences of our actions or encouraging a different lifestyle approach? However, most of us tend not to scrutinize the details of these campaigns, but instead, casually continue on with the rest of our days.
Have you ever considered who is featured in these campaigns? Did you ever notice what message is being conveyed about certain groups of people? We expect health promotion campaigns to be exactly what they are labeled; ways of promoting healthy lifestyles to the general public and warning against consequences of certain actions. They are meant to be helpful and improve the general health of the population. However, there are underlying repercussions from the way these health promotion campaigns are structured, targeting certain individuals in reference to gender or disability, and thereby perpetuating negative stereotypes and reinforcing distinct categories.
An advertisement warning against the dangers of drinking and driving featured a teenager in a wheelchair with a caption next to him saying, “drive stupid and score some kickin’ new wheels.” At the bottom of the picture in small print, it also says, “go from cool to crippled in the blink of an eye” (1). When you just glance at the advertisement, the overall message is clear: don’t drink and drive, or else you may get into an accident that may debilitate you, forcing you to spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair. However, the text is perpetuating stigma regarding disabilities and handicaps because it is defining cool and crippled as mutually exclusive categories. This marginalizes people who do rely on wheelchairs, perhaps due to an injury or even a congenital disorder because it implies that being in a wheelchair is a negative thing. Similarly, the CAMH Hashtag campaign promotes negative stereotypes regarding people with mental disorders by associating their conditions with phrases such as “ashamed family” and “public fear” (2). Although these ads were meant to help treat mental illnesses, they discourage the public from accepting mental illnesses in order to improve the conditions. Their tactic of “shaming” people with mental illnesses in order to help them seek help is promoting stigma about mental illnesses by associating it with fear and humiliation. This may inadvertently discourage people from seeking and receiving help because they may not want to accept that they have a mental condition, such as depression or bipolar disease, simply because mental illnesses are viewed in such a negative manner. Furthermore, reinforcing negative stereotypes has dire consequences in society because it causes people with disabilities to face even more discrimination on a daily basis from many social institutions, such as schools and jobs, and therefore limiting their opportunities and resources.
In modern society, unfortunately, women are often marginalized due to existing hegemonies regarding patriarchy and “male superiority.” Dr. Pepper only reinforces these stereotypes by claiming in their health ads that the famous drink has “just 10 manly calories” and “it’s not for women” (3). They are blatantly reinforcing distinct categories that associate men with power, dominance, and strength, while implying that women are inferior and weak, who cannot handle such a “macho” drink. Unfortunately, stereotypes regarding women as “subordinate” do exist in society and having campaigns like these only perpetuates stigma and therefore promotes discrimination against women in social institutions, such as employment. To make matters worse, not only do these negative stereotypes affect the opportunities presented to women, but they also often affect how women view themselves. According to DoSomething.org, about 91% of women are “unhappy with their bodies” (4). Insecurities about body image can then lead women down a dangerous path where they may develop eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia, resort to substance abuse, or even experience depression and other psychological impairments. We need to work as a community to develop campaigns that empower women and other marginalized groups to ultimately improve the physical and mental health of the population.
Eradicating stereotypes and categories is drastically important because they not only cause people to view a certain group negatively, but they also lead to structural inequalities by affecting institutions in society. For example, if people with disabilities and women are perceived as “inferior,” they will be less likely to be selected for a job. The bottom line is that negative representation limits opportunities, and consequently, health promotion campaigns that promote stigma may be doing more harm than good.