Diabetes Scare Tactics

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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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