Diabetes Scare Tactics

Fear, it is often said, can be a powerful motivator. So perhaps it is not surprising that in diabetes-prevention efforts and other publicity campaigns, stoking fear in the viewer or reader is one of the most commonly used tactics. Many people, however, wonder whether promoting fear of diabetes is really the best way to achieve these campaigns’ goals (including our own Jan Chait, in a 2007 blog post) and whether this tactic could have unintended consequences.


A recent online ad by the American Diabetes Association.

One recent example of a publicity campaign designed to induce fear is an online banner ad by the American Diabetes Association. (Click the image above to view a larger version.) “Diabetes kills,” the ad reads, “more than breast cancer and AIDS combined. Just 30¢ a day can help us get closer to a cure.” Accompanying this text is the image of a foot — clearly meant to be that of a corpse — with a tag on it, protruding from underneath a white sheet. In this case, a scary message is clearly meant to highlight the urgency of finding a cure. But that same message — “diabetes kills” — could have the unintended effect of convincing people with diabetes that a cure is their only hope. An ad with a more hopeful message, such as “diabetes kills — but it doesn’t have to,” might encourage more people to step up their self-management efforts — but a more positive tone might make a cure seem less urgent and lead to fewer donations.

More stoking of diabetes-related fears can be seen in a much-hyped episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show that first aired three years ago, entitled “America’s Silent Killer: Oprah and Dr. Oz Want to Save Your Life.” During part of that episode, Dr. Mehmet Oz interviews a woman with Type 1 diabetes who has had one leg and part of the other foot amputated and is receiving dialysis treatments. After being asked by Dr. Oz what she would say to people who think their diabetes isn’t really something to worry about, the woman urges viewers with diabetes to take control before it’s too late. In another segment of the show, Dr. Oz compares glucose in the blood to “glass” and “shrapnel” while explaining how diabetes can harm blood vessels and lead to cardiovascular disease. While the alarmist tone of these segments is meant to push viewers into taking action, not all viewers responded positively, as reflected in some of the comments left online.

Do you think diabetes awareness campaigns should scare the target audience into taking action? If not, what emotions should they seek to inspire? Do you feel that you were sufficiently aware of the risks associated with diabetes when you received your diagnosis? Should scaremongering be banished from all ad campaigns, including those to discourage smoking and drinking sugary beverages? Leave a comment below!

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  • Onoosh

    I don’t need scare tactics myself (just seeing the facts clearly should convince any sensible person and make additional fright superfluous) but most of the diabetics I meet are kidding themselves about their disease and its possible consequences. They’re like motorcyclists who don’t want to wear a helmet: it just doesn’t suit their “lifestyle” or self-image. So perhaps scare tactics will get their attention…but I doubt it.

    What surprises me is that the American Diabetes Association, which otherwise seems to me to take a Pollyanna-ish approach to the disease, in an attempt to (as they might put it) “emphasize the positive” by pretending diabetics are pretty much like everybody else, has approached here from the other pole of advertising. What offends me about their ad, in particular, is that it looks suspiciously like a desperate attempt to strong-arm donations out of its readers. What’s the matter: drug industry money and advertising revenues falling?

    I do doubt that even the most extreme approaches, by the A.D.A, Oprah, Dr. Oz, or anybody else, will get most diabetics out of denial. People are going to continue to do what people do most easily: resist having to face their situations and make the radical changes they need to to control (as much as they can with such a capricious disease) a life-threatening condition.

  • Don M

    I think scare tactics are misplaced. Yes, we need to make people aware of risks–at least those who aren’t already aware–but we also need to make them aware of the rewards of taking control.

    The example of the woman with type 1 with a leg amputation and dialysis is misleading. Those kinds of complications are a result of poor control, not diabetes itself.

    I lead an organization in the DFW area that is made up of over 80 diabetic athletes, both type 1 and type 2. Some are casual walker-types or weekend bike-riders, and others are half marathoners, marathoners, ultramarathoners, century cyclists, and triathletes. Some are rock climbers and rollerbladers, skydivers, and back-country primitive campers. One thing we all have in common is our commitment to an active lifestyle combined with good glucose control.

    No one should lump all diabetics into the category of overfed, lazy couch potatoes who are eating their way to blindness, amputation, or an early death. That is the very worst form of prejudice.

  • jim snell

    Scare tactics while attention getting are in my opinion a waste of time. Finding positive – reassuring and corrective tactics seem far more productive in my mind. Scare tatics are over used and in access by all the chareltons peddling a message and snake oil.

  • joan

    Hello! Thanks for this opportunity to respond. I have been a Type 1 since 1957.

    Scare tactics will scare or frighten some people and not others. No matter how ones tries to help there will always be those who disagree!

    Some people who are diagnosed with diabetes need to be frightened but not so scared they ignore what they need to know!

    Articles should continue to help diabetics in a way to help them think using examples of whatever type of culture that they live in daily However, as it is said: You can force a horse to the water hole, but you can not force the horse to drink!

    I suggest that the words “Frighten”, “Healthier”, and “Awareness” are example that might trigger more awareness as well as a bit of Scare Tactics. However, the scary approach seems to stop the reader from learning what they should about how to help themselves.

    I suggest including the Family Bonds approach to reach the unreachable and those seeking help. Live healthy to enjoy adulthood; to marry, to have a success full career. live healthy to not burden your family; live healthy to see your children and grandchildren become adults; be an active and healthy spouse, partner, family member as possible; be healthy to help yourself! Be hel he healthy for your own happiness!

    A Healthy Nation is a strong Nation!

    Show or talk about children in ads taking an injection or using a pump. Show a baby receiving an insulin injection. Or show a Service Dog awakening a child or adult when they are experiencing a low BGL in the middle of the night? Show some amputations, and blindness,also.What is, is and must be faced regardless of those who ignore their their diabetes or complaints received.

    Abusing one self with tobacco, and surgery drinks is not healthy for anyone. Alcohol in moderation may be acceptable depending on the individual. Continue mentioning what is not healthy for diabetics. Some will listen and some will not.

    Federally Qualified Health Centers.LINK: http://findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov/Search_HCC.aspx

    Does the ADA and general public know about these clinic? For diabetics they could be very helpful. The one near me does a lot of business for all kinds of medical needs at a cost based on ability to pay and for some who qualify – there is no fee. For those without insurance for any reason they can be very helpful.

    When I was diagnosed as a T1D in 1957 [age 22] up to about 1980 I had very little medical assistance nor was information available to me to know how to help myself. In 1980 I began my Self Education while temporarily living in the U.K. with the help of very knowledgeable doctor. I was also given my first test meter at no cost

    There is approximately 26 million known diabetics, and most likely 26 million different ways to help us. There is no one answer that fits us all. There are still not enough medical professionals who are knowledgeable enough to guide all of us – yet!!!! We must keep trying to find ways to reach all diabetics! An awareness element is most important to us all

  • RedneckAngel

    Hand-in-hand with the scare tatics, are the false promises that if you’ll only….(fill-in the blank; lose weight, exercise more, eat ‘right’, etc.)youldd never get it–or even better–it’ll go away! Amazingly enough, many Medical Professionals seem to buy into this ‘it’s all because YOU aren’t doing right” theory too!!

  • Allez

    My husband is a T2 Diabetic who will not take care of himself.
    He smokes cigarettes and does not exercise.
    In his case, since he also will not go see a Dr. the scare tactics might just push him to realizing that his tingling feet and wounds that won’t heal are going to lead to an amputation if he doesn’t start doing something.
    Don’t know if it’ll help.
    It hasn’t yet, and he’s seen some pretty scary commercials lately.

    I also read up on diabetes and I eat properly and exercise,etc.
    He watched my physical state turn around from unhealthy to super healthy because of the changes.

    Maybe it won’t help but it sure does help me to know that he is hearing it from somewhere else besides just me.

  • Gaye

    I find scare tactics distasteful and ineffective. In fact I was hesitant to become an ADA member because of the STOP campaign and now the above ad I find even worse. It sure isn’t getting me to fork over my very limited dollars that way. I agree a scare but with hope or Family bond approach would probably reach the most people.

  • bln

    Did scare tactics work when AIDS first emerged? Or was it the discovery and distribution of anti-viral meds that enabled the HIV-positive to live a normal lifespan? Seems that diabetes is similar – the message should be that the more care we take with our dosages and lifestyles, the better quality of life and less severity of complications.