Can brands strike home with public health messages?

Despite major government efforts, like Change4Life, the majority of people fail to recognise obesity. A study suggests this is an opportunity for brands to step up to the plate. By Joe Fernandez

FATMANObesity in the UK has trebled in the past 20 years. But despite the Department of Health launching a high-profile campaign to address the problem – Change4Life – it appears that consumers are not getting the message. Ninety per cent of people don’t know how to identify the signs of obesity and refuse to acknowledge the problem exists, according to research by advertising agency McCann Erickson London, made available exclusively to Marketing Week.

The “Fatville” study, which polled 1,000 people, casts doubts on the efficacy of the public health messages to individuals. Nikki Crumpton, chief strategy officer at the agency, explains: “Our research found that the majority of individuals are blind to the fact that they are seriously overweight and endangering their health, despite all the messages out there, so brands must find fresh ways of communicating with the public and helping them realise their health is at risk.”

Sixty-eight per cent of obese people do not know they are obese and most are confused about what obesity actually means. Sixty-six per cent of men who are overweight think their weight is acceptable, while 73% of those who erroneously consider themselves to be overweight are female. One-third of women also confess to keeping secret stashes of food for themselves.

Hannah Sutter, founder of the Go Lower dieting programme, says that both government and brands trying to push a healthy eating message face obstacles.

“It’s an almost impossible task to help people realise they are obese and need to do something about it. We try and help NHS trusts reach out to these patients, and get so many knockbacks because people just don’t believe they are clinically obese.

“If we pushed ourselves on people, most would see it as an insult, so it makes more sense to let people acknowledge the problem for themselves and come to you to get them dieting and active again.”

McCann suggests it may be up to brands to take on the mantle of “nudging people in the right direction” by promoting more healthy and active lifestyles. They suggest these companies can be “compass brands”, promoting their health benefits rather than using their former “food fetish” marketing techniques (see boxout).

Crumpton explains: “What we ideally need to see is brands stopping using what can be deemed as ‘food porn’ in ads, where consumers are made to feel they should worship the food or service in question.”

Instead, she suggests companies follow the example of businesses such as sweet brand Chewits, which is promoting free swimming. Since the research suggests that people see obesity as a problem for individuals (81% cite this view and 70% think it is “their own fault” they are overweight), brands stepping in could be seen as going the further mile on behalf of consumers.

In some industries, such as fast food, the concerns about weight and being seen to help consumers with obesity issues have long been on brands’ agendas. David Kisilevsky, vice-president of marketing for Burger King EMEA, says: “If you want to be a brand that is trusted, you have to be a brand that is transparent and prepared to tell the whole story. We think our customers are intelligent enough to make those decisions by themselves but it is important that they have the facts so they can make informed decisions.”

If other companies are able to adapt to meet the education and attitude needs of confused Britons, they could fill the gap that McCann’s research indicates is being left open by the Government’s efforts. But Jason Hemsworth, strategic director of brand consultants Jump, warns that with so much about obesity appearing in the media on a daily basis, it will take very clear and direct communications to make an impact.

He argues: “There is no shortage of information available to the public, but brands must strive to be heard against the background orchestra of myths, miracle cures and vested interests. Consumers need enhanced quality – not quantity – of information.”

Compass brands

McCann Erickson London has developed a “compass brands” manifesto that outlines key guidelines for brands and businesses to adopt that will help them “guide” consumers to making healthy choices.
Compass brands believe in:
– Celebrating food, not worshipping it
– Instinctual eating and trusting our senses
– The joy of playing and movement
– Reclaiming stairwells and pavements
– Enjoying life through walking or cycling, and not always through a windscreen
– Encouraging the acceptance of people regardless of shape or size
– The shared pleasure of mealtimes
– Talking about food as what it is – something to eat – as opposed to shades of good and bad
– Demanding time to eat and play as part of a full and healthy life
– Creating a clear, encouraging and shared language to talk about health issues

Key stats

90% of people cannot accurately identify an obese person
25% are unable to identify someone who is morbidly obese
68% of obese people do not know they are obese
81% of Britons believe individuals are responsible for rising levels of obesity
64% of people agree that obesity is a form of child abuse
30% of women admit to keeping secret stashes of food for themselves
91% of those considering themselves obese see it as a negative term
46% of people – the largest group – consider “voluptuous” the least offensive word for their figures


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