An Interview with Dr. Jacob Justice, author of “Corporeal Anxiety: Representations of Disability in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Tips from Former Smokers Messages.”
Dr. Justice’s article was recently published in issue 5.4 of Rhetoric of Health and Medicine. In this interview, assistant editor Amy Reed asked Dr. Justice about public health messaging as a site for rhetorical study and the potential for embodied rhetoric to both stigmatize and destigmatize. Read on for a discussion of Dr. Justice’s article!
AR: Your article, “Corporeal Anxiety: Representations of Disability in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Tips from Former Smokers Messages,” analyzes the anti-smoking campaign’s reliance on disability stigma as a means of persuasion. What led you to this topic and to see it as a site ripe for rhetorical analysis?
JJ: I have been researching the Tips campaign for what feels like a long time. The recently published article in Rhetoric of Health & Medicine is a continuation of research initiated in my master’s degree thesis, which I completed in 2016. I would give a two part answer to this question about what led me to this topic. First, I feel a personal connection to the anti-smoking cause as somebody who has lost family to emphysema. I find it disturbing and puzzling that a habit that is so clearly linked to death and disease is also an ingrained part of American culture. Second, the visceral reaction I had to Tips advertisements that I saw on television suggested to me that Tips was ripe for rhetorical analysis and that there was something unique and unsettling about this campaign. My first encounters with the campaign were in my capacity as a simple consumer of television rather than a researcher, but the striking nature of the messages made me want to critically examine the campaign. So it was this combination of my interest in the anti-smoking cause and my own fascination with what makes the Tips campaign moving that led me to investigate this topic.
AR: In the article, you define corporeal anxiety as “an emotion characterized by distress at the prospect that able-bodiedness is temporary that arises from perceived bodily vulnerability,” and you argue that this campaign facilitates corporeal anxiety in ways that stigmatize disability. In addition to this particular anti-smoking campaign, you mention several other public health messages that stoke corporeal anxiety. How frequently is this rhetorical strategy used? And, has it or could it ever be used to facilitate destigmatization rather than stigmatization? Or, alternatively, what potential do you see for leveraging different embodied rhetorics for destigmatization?
JJ: I would say, relative to where public health messaging was several decades ago, that this type of graphic and negative appeal is increasing in frequency. The essay gives examples of other campaigns that use similar techniques. I struggle to see how the Tips campaign’s strategy of invoking corporeal anxiety could be used to facilitate destigmatization, since invoking corporeal anxiety is fundamentally about identifying particular bodily forms as negative, tragic, or a cautionary tale. That being said, I do not think there is anything inherently regressive about disabled bodily rhetoric and can imagine contexts where imagery of disability could potentially be used in more positive ways. I think the trend in commercial advertising to celebrate all body types and colors is a welcome, if insufficient, development. The logical conclusion of this trend should be to affirm that disabled bodies are beautiful as well.
AR: Towards the end of your article, you suggest that rhetoricians can contribute to creating public health messages that promote healthy behaviors while at the same time resisting stigmatization. If you had a chance to speak to the CDC about the Tips from Former Smokers campaign, how might you suggest they proceed in light of your research?
JJ: If I had the attention of the CDC, my own sense of humility and curiosity would likely lead me to start by asking them questions rather than immediately offering my own advice. I’m sure every messaging decision made by the CDC is very carefully calculated and informed by their own research and data. I would be curious to know to what extent they considered the growing literature base, some of which is referenced in my article’s conclusion, showing that stigmatizing campaigns can have perverse public health effects by undermining individuals’ perceptions of self-esteem or self-efficacy. Surely, the CDC is aware of this research, so I would be curious to know how they weighed this potential disadvantage while formulating their messaging strategies.
To the extent I offered advice, I would encourage the CDC to at a bare minimum complement the Tips campaign with messages containing a more positive and affirming message, as described in the article’s conclusion.