Sofie Hagen, Cancer Research and Advertising

Obesity

Comedian and podcast creator Sofie Hagen stirred up a whirlwind of controversy on Twitter on the 28th of February by tweeting her objection to an advert run by Cancer Research that, in no uncertain terms, described obesity as a cause of cancer. Hagen, a body-confidence campaigner and anti ‘fat-shamer’ described the advertising campaign as “incredibly damaging”, arguing that “BMI had been debunked decades ago” and persistently using the terms “maybe” and “possibly” in summarising Cancer Research’s argument.

Hagen has in the past worn her weight on her sleeve and has posted pictures of herself on the social media network proudly displaying her stomach, complete with smiley face, and previously called companies using this approach – including Lush who subsequently pulled their posts after more social media uproar</a – numerous obscenities. The comedian, currently touring in Denmark, is writing a book with regards to why it is “ok to be fat” due to be released next year.

Twitter, in typical Twitter fashion, was quick to respond. These responses ranged from agreement to cancer sufferers tweeting their distaste, to the trolls who were naturally on the button to launch a volley of abuse at Hagen. I shan’t bore you with any details of the nature of the offensive responses and I can’t see any benefit in airing such ill-formed opinions but let us just say that these responses were less than complimentary regarding Hagen’s weight. Cancer Research even responded on their Twitter account, arguing that obesity was the “second biggest cause” of cancer after smoking, stating that it was the charity’s duty to inform the public of the dangers of obesity.

What was provoked, apart from the legions of those with nothing to better to do in the Spring snow than tweet abuse at comedians, was debate. Albeit not on Twitter, the debate provides interesting questions: to what extent should charities take this ‘heads-up’ approach to advertising? Is it fat-shaming if the science is behind it? Furthermore, should fat-shaming as a term even exist, or is this a symptom of the ‘snowflake culture’ that we are constantly told exists among those of a younger disposition?

Let me start by re-stating the fact that some of the abuse towards Hagen was disgusting. It added absolutely nothing to the debate and although it was sure to raise a smirk or two among the troll community, it served only to undermine those providing more informed defences and give further credence to Hagen’s complaint of fat-shaming. It is hard not to sympathise with someone who is receiving tirade after tirade of hatred for their weight, regardless of whether you agree with the premise of her statement.

Nevertheless, science is not supportive of Hagen’s argument. Despite her objections to the usage of BMI – which is not an overly objectionable statement, as Sarah Jacoby has more eloquently elucidated – the National Cancer Institute argues the science is clear, consistently linking obesity to many types of cancer, including endometrial (2-4 times more likely), liver cancer (2x), and kidney cancer (almost 2x). If we work off the established science that DNA damage causes cancer, and that obesity inhibits the body’s ability to regenerate DNA, then there is ample evidence to argue that Hagen is, by scientific standard, incorrect in her argument.

Having established that Hagen is on factually – at the very least – wobbly ground, is there any credence to the argument that Cancer Research should not be running the advert due to it being ‘shaming’? The question I would ask Ms Hagen is this: if this advert were regarding smoking, would she have the same objection? Similar, scientifically solid lines built by science have established smoking to be the only thing more damaging than obesity with regards to cancer. Could one realistically be accused of ‘smoke-shaming’ given the science? Probably not. But if you asked a smoker, they would probably justify it by saying that they accepted the risks associated with smoking but did it out of choice. Such is a fitting defence of a pastime that is biologically unhealthy but should only be defended by the principle of free will. It should not, nor should obesity, be defended on the principle of the science being incorrect.

Smoking

Taking forward the example of tobacco, one could argue that the government are founded in their straight-talking approach. Cancer-infected limbs and mouths with three teeth in them adorn any smoking product, and the glamourous image of smoking has been demolished with other tactics that could be accused by the more sensitive smoker as ‘demonising’. Nevertheless, these measures have proven effective. Smoking rates are falling, whilst industries such as vaping that advocate a healthier lifestyle are increasing. I can’t help but imagine that a similar tactic, employed by the government and charities would prove similarly effective. That, presumably, is the tactic of Cancer Research UK, a charity whose primary purpose must surely always be to lower rates of cancer.

The British are a stubborn people. They persist to smoke and drink, as well as eat unhealthily regardless of the best efforts of the government to be more ‘softly-softly’ in their approach to these lifestyles. The unfortunate fact is this; the fast-food outlets don’t care and advertising for these chains persists in continuing their campaigns for products including larger versions of existing products, such as the Grand Big Mac.

Grand Big Mac

Surely, the point of advertising is to provoke discourse. If the government and charities like Cancer Research UK have to fight dirty in order to counter the wave of advertising advocating products that, to our knowledge, increase the risk of certain types of cancer, surely the observer should be saying “so be it”, knowing that the safety and information of those subject to it is a more overriding factor than the premise of certain individuals being put out by its tone. If Sofie Hagen wishes to eat what she wants, then that is her right, as it would be if she wanted to smoke. Surely, she cannot, in any good conscient awareness of the scientific proof criticise an advertising campaign, by one of the most reputable charities in the United Kingdom, that is merely fulfilling its obligation to promote healthy lifestyles.

As a role model to some, one can’t help that this tirade – however socially motivated – paints a picture of social irresponsibility rather than responsibility. I can understand Hagen’s frustration as a larger woman and the way in which body confidence issues can manifest themselves with over, or undereating. But the way in which these statements, using hand-picked and largely counter-factual scientific information, present themselves suggest almost that Hagen’s beliefs are primarily phrased as a defence of her own lifestyle, rather than an objective analysis of the facts. If in-your-face advertising in the same way as anti-smoking lobbies can help bring down the prevalence of cancer, a disease which nearly everyone has been affected by, then this must be accepted as a necessary evil. Simply put, the stakes are too high to suggest the price of causing offense isn’t worth paying.

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