Change4Life partners raise questions over who will reap the rewards

As the nation’s minds turn to the annual January detox, this weekend saw the launch of the first ads for the £75m Change4Life programme, which the Government is billing as a health revolution. The scheme, announced in the summer, aims to combat growing obesity levels in the UK by encouraging healthy eating and more physical activity.

The strategy has received broadly positive feedback from all sides, a rarity on an issue that provokes passionate debate, but a key sticking point remains. The Government is working with 12,000 partners, including charities and health groups, but, crucially, it is also working with commercial partners under the title Business4Life. That partnership programme has led critics to question who exactly will benefit. Richard Watt, co-ordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign at lobby group Sustain, believes that allowing companies to use the Change4Life logo suggests the Government is giving the companies “tacit support”.

Such partnerships are not evident in the first ads, which have been created by M&C Saatchi and go straight for the jugular by playing on the obesity issue’s killer fact: that children will die before their parents if fat in their bodies is not reduced.

The simple and colourful ads, which use animated people reminiscent of Tony Hart’s Morph character, have been designed to be “very populist”, according to M&C Saatchi chief executive Tim Duffy. “We used animation because it appeals to parents and kids, it is utterly inclusive and it addresses a serious issue in a palatable way.”

Commercial bedfellows
Commercial tie-ups will be revealed over following months, including Unilever using the Change4Life logo on the Flora London Marathon route. Kellogg is rebranding its swimming activities as Swim4Life and expanding its breakfast clubs, and PepsiCo will use “well-known sportsmen and women” to promote active play.

Neville Rigby, a former director of policy and public affairs for the Association of Obesity Studies, dismisses it as “the same old stuff”. He adds: “PepsiCo is promoting physical activity, it has done that before. Kellogg promoting breakfast is nothing different. It starts with a theory of changing society but a lot of this still puts the onus on individual choice.”

Notable by their absence so far are high profile confectionery brands such as Cadbury, which is a London 2012 sponsor, and the fast-food chains. While McDonald’s failed to respond to Marketing Week, KFC says it is assessing how it can get involved with the scheme. Burger King says it is “reviewing the opportunity to be involved with the programme”.

Business dilemmas
The strategy has already raised interesting dilemmas for companies such as Kellogg. The cereal company is a key partner, yet a Change4Life leaflet advises children to avoid high sugar cereals and even suggests they swap it for toast. A spokesman responds: “Kellogg’s provides a range of cereals including some with lower levels of sugar such as Rice Krispies and Cornflakes should parents wish to choose these options.”

It also raises the question of how workable Change4Life will be over the long-term. The Department of Health says that it has “clear terms of engagement for any partnership” and adds that it is open to any company that meets the criteria, including providing healthier options, and that many discussions are ongoing.

Maura Gillespie, head of policy and public affairs at the British Heart Foundation, says it has received “verbal reassurance” that companies will not be allowed to “abuse” the Change4Life brand.

Even so, Sustain’s Watt remains doubtful that the criteria is strong enough to create fundamental change. “The pledges are quite small,” he says.

Business4Life, which is contributing £200m in kind, believes its members will bring valuable expertise in “advertising, marketing and media” that allow it to fully support the strategy.

There is little doubt that all stakeholders in the obesity debate will have to work together to reverse the climbing obesity rate. Whether they can work effectively if suspicion of each other’s motives or sincerity remain is another matter entirely.

Caroline Parry

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