Can advertising really cure obesity?

As the nation slips into the vice-like grip of an obesity epidemic, the Government has decided that the advertising industry can help solve the problem.

Obesity...levels have almost quadrupled in the UK in the past 25 years
Obesity...levels have almost quadrupled in the UK in the past 25 years
Obesity levels have almost quadrupled among UK adults in the past 25 years, with 22 per cent classed as obese. And in January, the Government announced a £75 million ad campaign, through COI, which will seek to create a "social environment" similar to that of campaigns such as Make Poverty History.

As the pitches for the account close, with Manning Gottlieb OMD securing the comms planning and M&C Saatchi landing the creative briefs, with only the DM contest yet to conclude, the question remains whether the industry that has so frequently been pilloried for helping to expand the nation's waistline can really help cure the problem.

While the blame game rolls on, with food manufacturers, agencies and the public all passing the buck, it is clear obesity is a complex issue, involving a number of factors, such as social class, income and geographical location, not to mention psychological and genetic issues.

Attempting to drive behavioural change against this background, and in the face of increasingly
sedentary lifestyles, is a tall order for the agencies involved.

Danny Brooke-Taylor, the creative director at the COI roster agency Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, argues that it will require an in-depth understanding of the mindset of obese people: "A poster isn't going change where you live or how much you earn. To counter that, the message is going to have to be based on a deeper understanding."

Although most are in agreement on this point, opinion differs on strategy, with Brooke-Taylor championing a "hit you from all kinds of angles" channel blitz, and Derek Morris, the chairman and chief strategic officer of the COI buying agency ZenithOptimedia, favouring a sensitive strategic approach.

However, one thing is clear: the target audience will be hard to engage.

Harassment doesn't work

As Emily Prewer, the awareness campaign executive at Diabetes UK, points out, the four key groups at risk of obesity-related health problems are: the over-40s, men, black and ethnic minority groups and people on a low income, all of whom are notoriously difficult to reach.

In order to achieve cut-through to those audiences, rather than preaching the health risks that consumers are already well versed in, most agree that the campaign needs to engage in a dialogue that doesn't lecture or harass.

As David Barker, the head of communications at the British Heart Foundation, explains: "Consumers know there's an obesity time-bomb ticking, so banging on and telling people what they already know isn't going to work."

Given the nature of the problem, it is clear advertising cannot solve it alone, and the key to the success of any campaign will be to integrate with government initiatives at a local level, in order to promote the support networks available.

"The role of advertising is to frame the issue and set the agenda so that the programmes established alongside the advertising will be more successful," Will Collin, a founding partner at Naked, says.

But this is no overnight solution, as Morris explains: "When I joined the business in 1980, the presumption was that you would smoke.

"It's been a 27-year journey to get where we are with smoking - and I think we are on a similar journey for obesity."