Close-Up: Live issue - Can advertising really cure obesity?

What role is there for advertising when the problem is so complex? Kate Nettleton investigates.

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 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. 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."

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CREATIVE - Danny Brooke-Taylor, creative director, Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy

"There are clearly so many factors that lead to obesity, from economic and geographic, to social demographic factors.

"So it's clear that a one-off poster campaign isn't going to change someone's genetic or pathologic make-up. It needs to impact on a much deeper level.

"Before deciding on a creative standpoint, you have to understand what's going on in the mind of someone who is obese, which is so profound and complex, some glib creative idea just isn't going to cut it.

"Advertising can help turn up the volume on certain points, but it won't make you fat and it won't make you thin."

CHARITY - David Barker, head of communications, British Heart Foundation

"Of course it can't. It's a massively complex problem. It isn't just something that an ad campaign telling people to diet will solve.

"Advertising is, however, an important tool in our armoury to help create change.

"There needs to be practical help and support, as well as an environment in which people are inspired to do something about it rather than a finger-waggy, preachy, tell-them-what-they-already-know type of approach.

"You can either beat people over the head with your stick or you can put a carrot on the end of it and say 'come with us'."

MEDIA CHIEF - Derek Morris, chairman and chief strategic officer, ZenithOptimedia

"Advertising can't cure obesity, but it can be a part of a process that helps change social behaviours. However, I don't believe anyone can see this as an instant change. It's about settling on a key argument and making small changes to the way people live their lives over the next 20 years in exactly the same way as the anti-smoking campaign has worked.

"I don't think it's about blanket bombing or an all-media strategy either. It requires a sophisticated understanding of all elements, finding the key points at which you can build a brick in the argument, and then you find the most sensitive channel to deliver that message."

PLANNER - Rebecca Morgan, chief strategy officer, Lowe

"Advertising can engage people in the issue, but it can't cure it. You need to engage people rather than lecture, either through helping people to think about their own, or their kids' situations.

"But when the audience is hard to reach, as they quite often are with COI issues, then you have to question what the role for advertising is, and whether it's the best way of tackling it.

"The industry has a right to get involved if it's responding to a legitimate marketing need, but its role might be about seeding something that will be picked up in a closer channel to their everyday lives."