With the Department of Health set to launch its Change4Life anti-obesity programme this autumn, issues around healthy eating have never been more important on the Government’s agenda. The food industry, the Advertising Association, advertising agencies and media partners are all set to join forces in a partnership in the fight against obesity.
Child obesity is of particular concern. Parents increasingly find themselves blamed but, in equal measure, are used as a sounding board for preventative solutions. The latest research from media agency MPG’s Fabric panel shows that parents accept this responsibility.
When asked which group most influences their child’s eating habits, two-thirds of a panel made up of families believe that parents themselves are the most to blame for bad eating habits in children.
A total of 78% of the panel believes that parents can do the most to ensure children eat a healthier diet. This compares to 5% who believe that TV broadcasters can do most by showing positive, healthy food ads. Just 4% believe that the responsibility lies with food manufacturers, which receive a lower share of the blame than the broadcasters that show their advertising.
Indeed, the industries have committed £200m to tackle the problem.
Parents feel that they are the factor that has caused the child obesity problem and the factor that has the most influence to promote change, not food manufacturers, the media, ad industry or even the Government.
As part of the Government’s National Child Measurement Programme, every year children in Reception and Year 6 are weighed and measured to allow analysis of trends in growth patterns and obesity. To get their child’s results, parents must actively “opt in” and request them, but the Government wants to change legislation so that parents have to actively “opt out” if they do not want to receive details of their child’s height and weight.
When asked if the Government should actively tell parents if their child is obese, nine out of ten believe that they should be told, which is in line with present Government intentions. As one respondent puts it: “Ignorance is not always bliss. Perhaps if some parents received an early warning they might be more inclined to do something about it.” Parents who agree with the Government feel strongly that they should be told while they still have time to do something about it.
It is clear that parents are not only supporting the Government’s intention to change whether parents are told if their child is obese, but want the plans to go even further than those proposed. This view would seem to bode well for the DoH’s Change4Life campaign.
The DoH’s £75m campaign, created by M&C Saatchi, is planned to run until the London 2012 Olympics and aims to reduce the rising level of obesity. Although not aimed exclusively at children and parents, the campaign will be a co-ordinated approach to fighting obesity rather than the public being subjected to an array of separate messages.
Research shows parents do have a positive reaction to Government intervention and actively support public service campaigns. The harsh line that shock “demotivational” advertising takes is also accepted and even encouraged by parents. When it comes to particularly sensitive areas such as child obesity, there’s strong support for employing shock tactics that echo anti-smoking and anti-drinking campaigns.
When asked if a shock strategy would be an effective way of tackling obesity, 67% support the idea. As one respondent says: “Advertising can be used as a force for good, even when it uses shock tactics to play up to the guilt of parents.”
This is further highlighted by nearly three-quarters of respondents agreeing that the advertising of junk food should be banned before the 9pm watershed. Respondents wish to make the right choices for themselves and their families and believe that removing temptation from their media diet will help.
Those parents that didn’t think a shock campaign would be effective said they didn’t think certain groups of parents and children would take any notice. They believe some parents already know they’re giving their children an unhealthy diet, yet seemingly do little about it.
However, campaign negativity must be channelled towards the action rather than the audience themselves. This is the case whether the subject is drink driving, TV licence avoidance or child obesity. The fine line between the subject and “labelling” is crucial. Inhibiting personal freedoms and applying social pressure could be counter-productive and the DoH will have to tread carefully to avoid provoking resentment.