By JOEL MEARES
Subway commuters are this month faced with posters featuring soda, iced tea and a “sports” drink congealing into veiny human fat as they are poured into a glass. The ads ask, “Are you pouring on the pounds?” They then suggest: “Go with water, seltzer or low-fat milk instead.”
The Health Department’s director of physical and nutrition programs, Cathy Nonas, says the $277,000 campaign will first shock, then teach. “For those of you who had no idea you could be consuming 51 teaspoons of sugar and 500 to 700 calories just from drinking two to three sweetened beverages, now you know,” says Nonas.
It’s the latest public service campaign using the subway to change New Yorkers’ bad habits, joining the likes of graphic anti-smoking drives. The new ads began appearing in 1,500 subway cars last week and will be there for three months, courtesy of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. They aim to get commuters looking up, around and learning. But similar campaigns have met with varying levels of success in recent years.
Bart Robbett, who has created subway ads at Robbett Advocacy Media for 20 years, says subway campaigns work if they fit into their environment. “Subway ads need to cut through the clutter,” says Robbett, who teaches strategies of political communication in the Elections and Campaign Management Program at Fordham University. “They should channel the emotions, whether it be anger, fear or humor. Then they must have a very clear call to action.”
He cites the Department of Homeless Service’s eye-catching drive from last year as an effective campaign. The ads featured black-and-white portraits of the city’s homeless along with the line “Give the Homeless the Kind of Change They Can Really Use.” The poster then urges riders to call 311 for a team to assist a homeless person.
“In fiscal year 2009, 311 received an average of 20 calls per day, requesting that outreach teams be deployed,” says department spokeswoman Kristy Buller. Though she was unable to supply similar data for the previous year, Buller says that the 2009 Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) counted 2,328 homeless people in the city, a 47 percent reduction from 2005. Combined with other efforts in the department and throughout the city, the ad is having an impact, enough so that one the department relaunched it this July with 2,400 posters in trains and 400 larger posters in stations.
In 2007, as part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s aggressive attack on smoking, subway riders were reintroduced to Ronaldo Martinez, who lost his larynx to throat cancer and who was featured in a series of anti-smoking TV spots in 2000. In a new set of subway ads, Martinez faced viewers directly while pressing a microphone to his throat. The poster read, “Nothing Will Ever Be the Same.”
The campaign was part of a large-scale TV, subway, print and online campaign that some say has helped to drive New York’s smoking rates to their lowest on record: Fewer than 1 million adult smokers in the city, according to the Health Department. But the campaign also featured a three-week giveaway of patches and nicotine gum, and, in the same period, state and federal taxes pushed cigarette prices to an unprecedented average of $9 a pack.
Unlike anti-smoking campaigns, there will be no accompanying tax hike to the new sugary beverage campaign — an 18 percent state tax increase on sugary drinks was nixed early this year, though the idea is not completely dead — no television ads and no free patches to help the over two million New Yorkers, who, according to the Health Department, drink at least one sugar-sweetened beverage every day.
Robbett worries that the lesson may not get through. He says the “Are you pouring on the pounds?” campaign connects on an emotional level — “self-consciousness and a degree of disgust” — but faces a rougher track than past campaigns. Putting down the bottle is sometimes harder than picking up the phone, either to call 311 for a free pack of gum or to report a homeless person.
He points out that unlike the homelessness and anti-smoking ads, which feature a slab of text explaining the problem, there is nothing similar on the new posters to explain the calorie content of the drinks and its links to obesity. “And to get people to change their behavior, it’s a tough sell,” he says.
Nonas agrees. “The campaign aims to educate. At the end of the day what you do with your body is up to you.”