Here is the key point: There's absolutely no mention of health.
Dr. Barnard insisted that the ad was not body-shaming, but only made the connection between cheese and obesity. And it does do that, but in what context? In the context of appearance, not health.
In an email to me, the good doctor said this:
Our ads are designed, not as any sort of “shaming” or falsified depiction of obesity, but rather simply as a view of ordinary obesity exactly as it is. If you thought “fat is beautiful,” as some cultures have in the past, you would probably find the images attractive. Take another look, and you’ll see what I mean. There isn’t anything derogatory about them; they are exactly what millions of people see in the mirror every morning. However, the text links obesity to cheese, and is so starkly simple that it calls up whatever the viewer feels about those subjects.This bothered me at the time, but I couldn't put my finger on why. Now that I see there's no mention of or reference to health at all, I get it. Of course this was meant to be derogatory. If they didn't mean it that way, well then, they aren't very good at developing effective campaigns, are they? If they felt that woman's thighs weren't going to scare people off of cheese, what was the point of the ad?
No, they were counting on the image being viewed as undesirable - shameful - and to say otherwise was extremely disingenuous. Calling up "whatever the viewer feels about those subjects" is code for playing on the well-established weight shame in American culture.
I'm upset with myself for not seeing it sooner. So simple, so plain. These ads are not about health at all, they're about appearance, but I let PCRM's reputation for caring about public health and Dr. Barnard's apparent openness to discussion of the issue derail my concerns over their tactics.
It's really disappointing that PCRM has not publicly backed off this campaign. All I can hope at this point is that they will think twice before adopting future campaigns, keeping their reputation of responsible health information in tact. I respect Dr. Barnard and PCRM for the many wonderful things they have accomplished, but another campaign like this one will have me reconsidering which organization I support.