‘This is a real reset moment’: Government campaign aims to tackle adult obesity

Public Health England is launching a new adult health brand – ‘Better Health’ – as it looks to use the coronavirus crisis to talk to the nation about health, but without “nannying or hectoring”.

Public Health England is launching an adult health campaign that aims to inspire the nation to improve its health and reduce the risk of becoming seriously ill, as the Covid-19 pandemic pushes the issue of health up the agenda.

The ‘Better Health’ campaign will initially cover adult obesity – the first time PHE has focused solely on this issue. It aims to encourage adults to introduce changes that will help them reach a healthier weight, such as eating better and getting active through, for example, a new NHS Weight Loss Plan app.

The campaign launch, the biggest for PHE in more than a decade, aims to build on the “reset moment” in the UK around health, says marketing director Sheila Mitchell. Obesity is the initial focus in part because of the scale of the problem – 60% of British adults are overweight – and the correlation between being overweight and being hospitalised due to Covid-19.

This is also a priority for prime minister Boris Johnson, who believes his weight contributed to the seriousness of his experience with the coronavirus. The campaign is part of a wider strategy to tackle obesity that includes plans to ban pre-watershed junk food ads, cut down on in-store promotions and introduce calorie counts on restaurant menus.

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“Public health campaigns need good reasons to talk to people if we’re not going to either hector or be nanny state. Covid is a public health emergency, but it has also highlighted issues around adult health and obesity, and the correlation,” she tells Marketing Week.

“The idea was there is a huge reset moment in the UK and we could create a new brand and campaigning agenda to talk directly to adults. It’s the start of a brand property that can stretch across adult health for a long-term period.”

The initial campaign, created by M&C Saatchi, will run for six to eight weeks across media, launching on TV tonight (27 July). While it is aimed at all adults, it has a particular focus on those with a body mass index (BMI) of between 25 and 30 – classed as overweight – and those from the BAME community, who are also more likely to have serious Covid-19 symptoms.

Mitchell talks of PHE being very aware it needed to get the tone right – to balance a positive and rallying message, while also landing the point about the seriousness of the issue.

There is a huge reset moment in the UK and we can create a new brand and campaigning agenda to talk directly to adults. It’s the start of a brand property that can stretch across adult health for a long-term period.

Sheila Mitchell, PHE

“We had to make sure not only that we reached people, but they could see themselves in the communication in a positive and fun light, and it wasn’t going to be nagging or hectoring,” she explains.

“We need to do public health messaging but it needs to be done with a bit of attitude, a bit of fun, a bit of gusto. It needs to be rallying but land a serious health message, embedded in science and medicine, but then it can be onwards and upwards. Weight can be difficult to talk about but you can’t just shy away from it.”

The initial burst focused on obesity will be followed up with messaging around health issues such as exercise, smoking and mental wellbeing. There is also likely to be a further push on the issue of weight in January when everyone is thinking about New Year resolutions, although that could shift depending on the situation with Covid at the time.

How brands can help tackle obesity

PHE is also hoping brands will get involved in tackling obesity. Mitchell cites examples of work with retailers and food manufacturers, such as McDonald’s promotion for its 400-calories breakfasts and Gregg’s pushing healthy meal options.

“As long as what they are promoting meets the right nutritional standards then we can really partner with them and do interesting things,” she says. “I’m hoping once this lands we can start to work with the commercial sector on their options and healthier choices for people.”

As with other organisations, the pandemic has shifted the focus for Public Health England, which is now looking at all its work through the lens of managing the impact of coronavirus – whether that is promoting the flu vaccine later in the year or encouraging people to go to A&E in an emergency.

The success of this campaign will ultimately come down to whether it shifts people’s attitudes and they start thinking more about health, which will be measured by whether people download the NHS app and engage with content and tools, as well as whether weight loss partners such as WW and Get Slim see a “halo effect”, says Mitchell.

Ultimately, though, tackling obesity is a long-term health issue that will take decades to resolve, as smoking did.

“With smoking, we pulled every lever we could – legislation, policy, campaigning – but that is 40 years’ worth of activity. Now we have very good results on smoking cessation. That is the journey we are probably on with obesity,” concludes Mitchell.

“This was the perfect reset moment, we have all had a wake-up call. If you don’t think about your health now I’m not sure when you would, so we’ve got to give it a try to see if we can capitalise on this moment to get people to do something or commit to taking some action.”