Junkfood Science: Brought to you by...

May 10, 2007

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As we’ve seen, the lines between journalism and marketing have become imperceptible. The news we see on television, hear on the radio and read in publications increasingly are examples of the latest form of advertising. While more of us are not taking the news at face value anymore, many of us let our guards down and toss off our critical thinking caps when we see a documentary. We have this belief that documentaries are factual and true — after all, we’re seeing it with our own eyes. We hold them to high ideals and believe they are presenting reality with neutrality and objectivity and giving us a balanced view.

How wrong we are.

Few of us would ever imagine we’re often just watching carefully-crafted marketing pieces. But documentaries are another venue for shaping public opinion and perceptions, and have become an especially effective technique because we’ve come to hold them above reproach. In fact, starting in grade school, we’re shown documentaries as education, not realizing they are produced by someone trying to convince us of something.

While there have been countless examples over recent years, here’s the latest. TLC, a television network of Discovery Communications, Inc., which says it’s “dedicated to lifelong learning,” has just issued a press release for a new documentary series called Big Medicine. In it “a father and son physician team fight the obesity epidemic one bariatric surgery at a time.”

According to the press release:

[It] follows the personal stories of severely obese patients who turn to Houston's Methodist Weight Management Center as a life-changing last resort....The series chronicles the emotional journeys and transformation of obese people who have opted to undergo weight-loss surgery in an attempt to regain their lives. Patients are captured at various stages in the process — before and during the surgery, through recovery and post-op care and often through cosmetic procedures designed to remove sagging skin after dramatic weight loss.

The 13-part series introduces viewers to the Methodist team of experts dedicated to lifelong patient care...To Robert and Garth Davis, obesity is a disease. And while weight-loss surgery is not a cure, it can be a lifesaving option for patients who are ready to commit to long-term lifestyle changes....For more than 25 years, The Methodist Hospital in Houston has led the way in helping people achieve weight loss with safe, long-term solutions.

To those knowledgeable of obesity and bariatrics, and hopefully even to those who aren’t, the emotional verbiage and spin are apparent. Not a single mention is made of a downside and it’s doubtful that 7 episodes will share the stories and real life of patients who’ve had bad outcomes or that 7 episodes will follow fat people who’ve found that “regaining their lives” didn’t mean weight loss at all costs.

It is produced by The Idea Factory, just one of many companies who create documentaries for business clients. As their website says:

The idea factory is dedicated to producing visual media that delivers your message to the intended audience and triggers results. Since 1992, [it] has been developing innovative, effective media tools. We have the people, equipment, and facilities to provide complete design and production services from TV commercials to full-blown multimedia programming. [We] excel at content development. It’s our trademark with over 500 commercial production clients, as well as over 150 hours of nationally aired television programs (thanks to our colleagues in the television programming department).

Our strengths begin with a dazzling group of people who bring a highly developed cluster of skills to every project, armed with academic knowledge and practical experience (over 100 collective years) in business communications.

Our team starts with an analysis and assessment of what you want to communicate and what you want to achieve with that communication. Effective content development starts by asking the right questions and by establishing the right objectives.

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