‘TV gives it added importance’: Government launches first major campaign for cervical screening

Public Health England is looking to reframe the conversation around cervical screening so it is more optimistic and positive as the number of women getting tested hits a 20-year low.

Public Health England is launching the first national marketing campaign for cervical screening in a bid to reverse a near 20-year decline in the number of women getting tested and help save lives.

Every year, around 2,600 women in England are diagnosed with cervical cancer and around 690 die from the disease – equal to two a day. Yet despite the fact that screening takes only a few minutes and can detect potentially harmful cells before they become cancerous, the number of women attending their cervical screen is at a 20-year low. Currently, one in four women skip their cervical screening, rising to one in two among some groups.

The campaign, created by M&C Saatchi, aims to reframe the conversation around cervical screening by focusing on optimism and positivity. The TV ad shows real women thanking friends and family for reminding them to attend their appointment, while also addressing the risk of not going and highlighting the preventative benefit.

This messaging will play through into video-on-demand, social media and digital channels, as well as national and regional PR, media partnerships and information in GP surgeries, sexual health clinics, pharmacies and local councils. It comes 10 years after the death of reality TV star Jade Goody, a timely reminder of the devastating impact cervical cancer can have.

Speaking to Marketing Week, PHE’s marketing director Sheila Mitchell says the campaign is based on the insight that many people don’t attend their screening because the perceived risk is low. Yet cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women under the age of 35, with estimates suggesting screening prevents 70% of cervical cancer deaths and that if everyone attended screening regularly, 83% of cervical cancer deaths could be prevented.

“Women think [screening] is to find out if they have cancer and people don’t really want to engage with that. But the test is really about trying to find abnormal cells, a test to stop cancer before it starts. When you reframe it in that way it starts to become a different proposition,” she explains.

“We’ve changed the wording round to ‘cervical cancer, saves lives and can stop cancer before it starts’. It’s much more optimistic and positive.”

cervical screening ad campaign
The campaign hopes to address some misunderstandings around cervical screening within the LGBTQ community

The campaign aims to appeal to all women eligible for screening by taking a diverse approach to the women featured in the ad. There is however a focus on demographics where the uptake rate is particularly low. This includes young women aged between 25 and 34 and those from deprived areas, as well as women from a BAME background or part of the LGBTQ+ community.

It aims to address specific barriers to these communities attending their screening. These include concerns over pain and discomfort, cultural attitudes and misunderstandings, for example lesbians and trans men with a cervix are still recommended to attend screenings.

The hope is the campaign will bring cervical screening to the top of the health agenda. To do that, PHE has worked with media partners to drive talkability, for example a deal with Bauer will see the campaign appear in magazines such as Grazia and Closer, while there are plans for a partnership with a major broadcaster and PHE has enlisted the help of celebrities including Mel C and Christine Lampard.

The campaign is part of the NHS’s long-term health plans, which looks at how the health service can support people before they become ill by helping them lead healthier lifestyles or identifying problems early. Early identification of cancer is a key part of that strategy and includes work under the ‘Be clear on cancer’ campaign messaging.

There is something about putting a message like this on television that gives it added importance which ongoing digital and PR doesn’t quite give you.

Sheila Mitchell, Public Health England

While the cervical screening campaign will be measured on metrics such as engagement and visibility, it “has to have health outcomes”, says Mitchell. PHE will be correlating the campaign to clinical databases and mapping that onto the national screening programme so it can see if and where the campaign is having an impact.

“The campaign is big enough and should be noisy enough to see national trend data coming through in that national screening programme database – that will tell us if we have done anything to change attitudes and get more women to go along [to screening] and who and where those women are,” adds Mitchell.

“It’s an important piece of work because it’s the first one we’ve ever done at any degree of scale.”

The campaign will run for an initial eight weeks and has been timed to ensure it doesn’t add to workloads over the winter when the NHS is at its busiest. It aims to encourage women to keep a look out for the letter that comes through their door once every three or five years but also to ring up and check if they’ve had a screening in the past three years, with six months of planning going in to ensure the health service is prepared for an uptick in demand.

“If it works there is a strong case to see how we keep the momentum going and keep this as an important issue. There is something about putting a message like this on television that gives it added importance which ongoing digital and PR doesn’t quite give you. We would look at the results, make sure it works, then make the case next year to say we need to keep doing this.”

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