Government hits back at calls for ‘hard-hitting’ anti-obesity ads

Public Health England (PHE), the Department of Health’s executive body responsible for the Change4Life initiative, has hit back at the National Obesity Forum’s call for more “hard-hitting” anti-obesity ads, saying such marketing could run the risk of “stigmatising” viewers.

Video: The latest Change4Life TV ad


The National Obesity Forum’s chairman Professor David Haslam today (13 January) urged the Government to bring its anti-obesity campaigns in line with the hard-hitting approach chosen for its anti-smoking drive to help address the growing national obesity problem. 

Haslam added that while the long-running Government Change4Life social marketing initiative is “very well intentioned”, it does not go far enough to help tackle the problem.

But Kevin Fenton, director of health and wellbeing at PHE, says using hard-hitting images, of severely obese people for example, does not encourage people to lose weight and may in fact have the opposite effect.

“For example, parents can reject these harder-hitting messages as blaming or stigmatising vulnerable children and tend to dissociate their own children from extreme depictions of overweight,” he adds.

The Change4Life campaign instead uses “nudge techniques” where individuals are supported to take small steps – such as swapping to a fizzy drink that contains less sugar, as depicted in its latest ads – which it says are more manageable than making drastic changes.

Fenton says: “Sweeping changes can be overwhelming and have a much higher chance of failure.”

PHE points to a 2012 US study published in the International Journal of Obesity which used a representative sample of 1,014 people to evaluate a range of 30 public service announcements from several countries aimed at curbing obesity. The campaign marked the highest for motivation was Change4Life’s “Eat well. Move more. Live Longer”, with 85 per cent of respondents saying it would move them to make changes, while “harder-edged” messages were found to be less motivating.

A blog post on the International Journal of Obesity authored by researcher Rebecca Puhl, who carried out the 2012 study, states: “Messages intended to motivate individuals to improve their health may be more effective if framed in ways that promote specific health benefits and confidence to engage in those behaviours, rather than messages that imply personal blame or stigmatisation. There remains a public perception that perhaps stigma is not such a bad thing… but scientific research has demonstrated that the opposite is true.”

The Change4Life obesity prevention campaign launched in 2009 and now has more than 200 partners, 200,000 Facebook fans and PHE claims more than 1 million families have signed up to join the campaign.