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Ear to the Ground

What’s the Point of Michelle Obama’s ‘Drink Up’ Campaign?

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Posted on Sep 12, 2013
Nicholas Erwin (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The first lady’s latest program is about encouraging Americans to drink more water, starting with at least one more cup per day than they are ingesting now. The organizers, however, haven’t answered the question on several people’s minds: Why?

The Atlantic’s health editor, James Hamblin, describes his bizarre experience trying to uncover the impetus behind the message Obama aims to spread with the campaign launching Thursday. Every clear-cut question (one reporter asked, for example, whether the first lady is trying to encourage people to replace sugar-filled drinks with water) received a vague response. Nowhere does the program explain how many cups of water one is meant to drink per day, nor what the health benefits are, nor does it aim to make any negative statements about other beverages. On top of it, Americans are already drinking on average nearly 40 percent more water than they were 15 years ago. So what exactly is the point of “Drink Up”?

Here’s what Sam Kass, executive director of Obama’s Let’s Move effort aimed at motivating American families to get more active, had to say when asked about the pro-water-drinking program’s goals: “... This isn’t a public health campaign. We think that being positive is most important, not getting into all the details about what a glass of water can do for you, is the message.”

Hamblin makes some wise points (and wisecracks) about this supposed non-public-health campaign’s simplistic positive message:

The problem is, though, that there is no recommended daily amount of water. If we knew how much we should be drinking, and it turned out we weren’t drinking enough, then yes, tell us to drink more. If they were telling us to replace soda in our diets with water, that would also be reasonable and potentially productive. They’re explicitly not doing that, though….

Lawrence Soler, president and CEO of Partnership for a Healthier America [said], “It’s less a public health campaign than a campaign to encourage drinking more water. To that end, we’re being completely positive. Only encouraging people to drink water; not being negative about other drinks. “

This is a public health campaign. How could this be anything but a public health campaign?

It will involve PSAs from first lady that will run nationwide, banner ads on prominent sites, the “Drink Up!” logo on 500 million bottles of water and more than 10,000 outdoor public taps, and a website called You Are What You Drink. Like everyone, they have social media strategies. These involve the Twitter hashtag “#drinkH20” and “celebrities with combined followings of over 100 million.”

...I hope what’s really meant by “Drink up!” is this: Replace soda with water, yes. Remember that too much water can still be bad, though, and for most people we have no reason to believe that an extra glass of water will result in health benefits. Drinking a glass of water certainly shouldn’t replace otherwise healthy behavior or give anyone a sense of confidence in their health that justifies subsequent unhealthy behavior. When you’re thirsty, yes, choose water over something with empty calories. If you’re thirsty from morning until night, figuratively or otherwise, see a doctor. Don’t let anyone who doesn’t know how much water you drink tell you to drink more water.

If you’re wont to insist on chanting about defunding a national health initiative, consider this one. I know we’re just trying to “keep things positive,” but missing the opportunity to use this campaign’s massive platform to clearly talk down soda or do something otherwise more productive is lamentable. Public health campaigns of this magnitude don’t come around every day. This one squanders both money and precious celebrity Twitter endorsements. Keeping things positive and making an important point are not mutually exclusive, you fools.

Government campaigns and taxpayer money being put to good use? I’d drink to that.

—Posted by Natasha Hakimi

 

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