D’oh! Homer Simpson to teach us healthy living

Sarah-Kate Templeton

Times Online

From The Sunday Times

October 4, 2009

D’oh! Homer Simpson to teach us healthy living

Sarah-Kate Templeton Health Editor

HOMER SIMPSON is known for munching doughnuts and swigging beer, but the Department of Health has decided that his family’s lifestyle is healthy enough to enlist them in an anti-obesity campaign.

The government is to sponsor episodes of the cartoon serial about the dysfunctional family for three months in an attempt to improve the nation’s diet and increase exercise levels.

Officials hope that families slumped in front of the Channel 4 programme will see a reflection of themselves in The Simpsons and realise they should probably be taking more care of their health.

Critics may suggest that there are better examples of healthy lifestyles — such as the cartoon character Sportacus, who encourages the children of Lazytown to eat more fruit.

Despite appearances, however, ministers believe much of the Simpsons’ lifestyle could set a good example to British families. For example, they eat together round the dining table and are a caring and sharing family, despite their many troubles.

Officials analysed the Simpsons’ dietary and exercise patterns and believe Homer’s son, Bart, achieves the government-recommended 60 minutes’ of exercise a day. Bart’s sister, Lisa, is a vegetarian and is likely to consume the daily target of five portions of fruit and vegetables.

At the beginning of episodes viewers will see cartoon characters pretending to be Homer, Bart, Marge and the rest of the family sitting on the sofa eating their favourite snacks of pizza, ice cream and chips.

The characters, designed for the Change4Life campaign by Aardman Animations, creators of Wallace and Gromit, will then see all the junk food disappear to be replaced with more nutritious fare such as carrots, apples and pears.

Gillian Merron, the public health minister, said: “The Simpsons are a much-loved, close-knit family facing some of the everyday challenges that modern-day families go through. They provide a popular and engaging way to get the message to real-life families about simple ways of improving their diet and activity for a healthier lifestyle.”

The health department acknowledges that the Simpsons’ lifestyle is not entirely healthy and this is reflected in the slogan for the £640,000 advertising campaign: “Supporting The Simpsons: Sometimes.”

A spokeswoman added: “The beer-drinking and doughnut-eating is clearly not what we would want.”

Sponsors of The Simpsons included Domino’s Pizza until Ofcom, the communications regulator, ruled it was in breach of the broadcasting code because the commercials advertised junk food to children.

Professor Gerard Hastings, director of the institute for social marketing at Stirling University, believes the public is more likely to listen to healthy-living tips if they come from imperfect characters.

“It is good that health is associated with something irreverent and fun instead of po-faced and worthy,” said Hastings. “It is not what is said but who says it that matters and the fact that Homer and Bart Simpson are implicitly endorsing this message is really important.

“We all have within us a bit of the beer and doughnuts persona and, within reason, that is fine. It is about balance and moderation.

“What this will hopefully do is advertise that being healthy does not automatically put you into that miserable, Calvinist group.”

Obesity is estimated to cost the NHS £4.2 billion a year and this is set to more than double by 2050. Forecasts suggest that a fifth of children will be overweight or obese by next year.

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