Close-Up: Can Change4Life initiative really tackle obesity?

The Government has kick-started a multi-pronged campaign focusing on improving diet and exercise, Noel Bussey writes.

Mr Burns, The Simpsons' megalomaniacal nuclear power plant owner, once commented to his sycophantic lackey, Smithers, that he didn't like being outside because there were "too many fat children".

Unfortunately, this cynically made comment is based on an unavoidable truth: obesity is increasing, and it is making people dangerously unhealthy, a fact that has become the basis for one of the most ambitious, far-reaching and strategically in-depth government campaigns ever produced.

The scope and breadth of M&C Saatchi's Change4Life campaign for the Department of Health is based on the findings of 2007's Foresight report, compiled by the World Health Organization, which predicted that by 2050, 90 per cent of children would be obese.

With this in mind, and the aim of creating a "lifestyle revolution" similar to that of Make Poverty History or Comic Relief, the colourful 90-second launch ad that broke in early January (see box) is only the tip of the iceberg.

Sian Jarvis, the director-general of communications for Change4Life, says: "Initially, the most important thing is to redefine the issue of obesity. Over the past few years, it has been sensationalised with programmes like Half Ton Son. We needed to personalise the issue and make people realise it is happening to them and their children. However, after that, three years of intensive work are planned, with a minimum of £275 million behind it."

The first year's plans cover four phases. Phase One is: introducing the campaign and redefining the issue. Jarvis says: "This is about letting people know that the issue is being raised and that we are building the base of a coalition, which will include the public, companies and councils, among others."

Phase Two will be about personalising the campaign. Jarvis says: "This will be where we will begin tailoring the campaign to the public so that they understand that obesity is a problem for them, not just other people."

This part of the campaign specifically targets parents of young children and is designed to change their ideas on health, from getting their kids outside to exercise more and take on leisure pursuits to providing information about the right diet and weight-related diseases.

Anna Brown, a teacher at Trinity Academy in Doncaster and a mother of one, says: "Some people need encouraging: my son and I do a lot of exercise, swimming, walking the dog three times a week, but some people need the extra push. There is a weight problem of obesity in the young. Kids need to be encouraged to exercise early on, then they will do it for themselves when they are older - but people need to be informed in the right way."

The Foresight report found a host of reasons why obesity was increasing, most of which were societal, so it became extremely important that the campaign's tone was not one of blame or reproach, but one of encouragement without being patronising.

First, the word "obesity" is never used in the ad, and it doesn't show fat people or children - instead it points at the future health problems caused by obesity while highlighting that the problem is down to changes in society. It is also not government-labelled, which can breed cynicism.

Although, with all this to take into consideration, and the considerable differences in attitudes between regions, classes and incomes that the campaign has to appeal to, Richard Storey, the chief strategy officer at M&C, says it was practically impossible to get right.

He says: "We had a number of research groups before the pitch where we thought we were never going to get the tone right. We were getting nothing from the people in the groups. We kept finding so many ways in which it can go wrong."

Obviously, for a campaign this size, research was the cornerstone of the plan, but Storey says: "The amount of research the DoH had put in dwarfed anything we'd worked with before.

"As well as using a lot of complicated modelling, it used full qualitative data, which it pulled together by not only holding workshops with thousands of mums, but it also had researchers living with families for a year to find out exactly what the problems were, what parents knew already and, more importantly, what they needed to know."

Phase Three involves a questionnaire called "How are the kids?" Jarvis says: "We'll be sending this out to hundreds of thousands of parents and asking them to tell us about their lifestyle and work out if they're active enough. We'll then have people available to be able to help them change it."

Finally, Phase Four will be about activating people at a local level.

Jarvis says: "We've already sent out 10,000 letters to people who run projects, such as walking buses, all over the country, and this phase will see us activate them into the Change4Life campaign and offer them a chance for funding."

This also includes bringing together disorganised funding from local councils. "We found that councils have quite a bit of budget for health and exercise, such as free swimming to under-16s, but have no way of channelling it all to make it effective - there's a lot of waste," Storey says. "But Change4Life will see it utilised properly."

The DoH also has data on people and community groups who run clubs, activities and events aimed at increasing exercise opportunities for young people. By being brought under the Change4Life banner, they can receive council funding for their activities.

By 2012, if Change4Life has been successful, the Treasury will hand it extra funding. "We have an awareness trajectory and will be constantly testing in schools to see if obesity is slowing. The initial target is to get it back to 2000 levels," Jarvis says.

Hopefully, if the campaign works, the only people Burns will see outside will be healthy ones. "We are where the anti-smoking campaign was 30 years ago; it's a daunting task but one that can be successful," Storey says.


Jonathan Burley - executive creative director, Leo Burnett

I like this campaign. I actually saw it first in real life as I scoffed my tea in front of the telly, and I noticed it (which is no little compliment when you consider how many blandly shouty post-Christmas ads make the brain go slack in defeat).

I guess that one of the reasons the campaign so successfully stopped my eye is because of the vividness of render - it's like Keith Haring posthumously rutted bareback with Morph and a few months later this popped out. It is bright, bold, cheerfully populist and rather hard to ignore, whatever the awards juries may think.

But the most arresting thing about the work is the strategy. It may wear its thought processes rather heavily on its sleeve, but there is a definite intelligence at work in the way the ad contextualises our modern gluttonous behaviour rather than telling us off.

I like the way the voiceover lets me off the hook for being such a greedy bastard. It allows me to say "Ah, it's not my fault that I'm a thick-waisted, chip-eating buffoon" as the ad patiently explains that roaming the Waitrosian veldt in the hunt for herds of wild ready-meals isn't the most efficient of calorie-burning activities.

It may occasionally veer perilously close to adopting a faintly patronising pat-on-the-head tone as it explains the evolutionary theory at work behind our lard-arse nation, but it does allow me to listen without prejudice ... It works.