The DoH unveils co-ordinated assault on obesity

The drive to cut the UK’s soaring obesity levels swings into full gear this autumn when health secretary Alan Johnson launches the £75m “Change4Life” advertising campaign to encourage the public to eat healthily and take more physical exercise.

Alongside the heavyweight ad campaign created by M&C Saatchi, the Department of Health (DoH) will link up with brands, community organisations and other groups to create the biggest healthy living crusade in UK history.

The campaign has been four years in the making, first mooted after the Government’s Choosing Health White Paper in 2004. Supporters say the drive will bring a co-ordinated approach to fighting obesity rather than blitzing the public with an array of separate messages.

It will take a positive, upbeat slant and eschew the use of scare tactics or blaming individuals for being fat. Critically, the ads, which launch in 2009, will target groups that have so far proven resistant to healthy living messages.

“For the first time, consumers will have a single set of messages rather than one organisation saying one thing and another saying something different,” says Kellogg communications director Chris Wermann. He claims the cereal company has been closely involved with developing the campaign. 

£200m 4Life

The Advertising Association (AA) announced last week that brand owners, retailers and media owners will contribute the equivalent of some £200m in airtime, programming and promotional activity to support the campaign, which runs until the London 2012 Olympics.

AA chief executive Baroness Peta Buscombe says the initiative may be called “Business4Life”. “Business is part of the solution to tackling obesity in the UK,” she says.

Brands and broadcasters selected by the DoH to join the campaign will be allowed to use the 4Life slogan and prefix campaign themes to it. For instance, Kellogg plans to rebrand its Free Swim Challenge as Swim4Life and rename its Fit For Life programme Fit4Life.

ITV says it hopes to develop programmes that encourage physical activity. It may use day-time schedules to target unemployed and re-tired people. The broadcaster will also look at creating a Children in Need style broadcast event promoting health.

Rupert Howell, ITV’s managing director for brand and commercial, says ITV’s contribution will be worth about £40m over four years. “It is a fantastic opportunity for the media and advertising worlds to prove definitively to Government and opinion formers that the best way to tackle obesity is to harness the positive power of advertising, not to indulge in futile ad bans,” he says.

DoH approval

Other brands which the AA says will take part in the campaign have yet to have their ideas approved by the DoH. All proposals will be vetted by a committee consisting of former GMTV presenter Sian Jarvis, who is DoH director general of communications, Dr Will Cavendish, director of health and wellbeing (though not a medical doctor) and nutritionist Susan Jebb.

Yet, the DoH says the AA is “jumping the gun” by claiming that snackfood and confectionery companies such as Cadbury, Mars, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé will be allowed to take part. “It is quite surprising, because we haven’t had conversations with all those people yet. It is brilliant they are interested, but they do need to sit down and have a conversation,” says a DoH spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, Richard Watts, co-ordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign, an alliance of pressure groups, says: “It would be entirely inappropriate for the logo the Government is pushing to end up on confectionery or snackfood packaging.”

The success of this campaign is crucial for the food and media sectors. Change4Life must succeed in reversing obesity or the Government may hit the industry with increasingly stringent restrictions on the marketing of foods high in fat and sugar.

David Benady

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