Close-Up: Live issue - Why adland is well-placed to confront obesity

The Government has often turned to the ad industry to highlight public awareness issues with great effect.

Throughout its history, and more so in recent times, the advertising industry has regularly faced criticism from the Government, pressure groups and sometimes even the general public about its worth.

With a lot of hype around proposed bans on junk-food advertising, as well as the almost fanatical demonisation of its role in advertising to children, the ad industry takes a lot of abuse and has recently been facing curbs on its power to reach people.

However, it is often forgotten that in the past, whenever governments, which have so regularly attempted to curb the industry's power, have needed to raise the public's awareness of a serious social issue, such as Aids or drug abuse, they instantly turned to adland to exploit its unique ability to influence.

This week, the Government announced it would be ploughing £75 million into creating a "social movement", designed to tackle Britain's obesity problem and giving the embattled ad industry the chance to prove that it can be a force for good, as it has so many times in the past.

Nick Bampton is the managing director of Viacom Brand Solutions, which has recently launched an initiative to work together with pro-social advertisers to bring positive advertising to the mainstream and tackle health and social problems by offering airtime at a reduced price. He says: "The use of TV advertising as a force for good is something we've been openly passionate about.

"As an industry we need to defend companies' rights to advertise their products and services freely, but at the same time responsibly. We also need to ensure that we proactively work in partnership with government departments and regulatory bodies to utilise advertising and influence society into positive change."

Chris Powell, the former head of BMP DDB Needham, says that advertising can do exactly this if used as part of a wider step change in public opinion.

He says: "You could not have introduced the smoking ban 20, or even ten, years ago because people weren't ready for it. There'd have been a riot, but years of changes to public perception, through advertising, softened our reaction to the point where it just happened."

With all this in mind, Campaign has taken a look at the thinking behind three public-service campaigns from the past 20 years that had such a positive impact on changing public perception that they picked up IPA Effectiveness Awards.

DRIVING HOME A DRUGS MESSAGE WITHOUT PREACHING OR PATRONISING

In the late 90s, the Health and Education Authority decided to target the rising number of casual teenage drug users with a hard-hitting awareness campaign.

Through a combination of radio and press ads, the campaign, which was created by DFGW, tried to inform users of the possible side effects of taking substances such as ecstasy and LSD without patronising or preaching to them. The press ads used images of young people taking drugs with parts of the body highlighted and facts about the damage the drugs could do them.

Lori Meakin, now a senior planner at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, was the head planner on the business that eventually went on to pick up an IPA Effectiveness Grand Prix. She believes that it was this understanding of the age group that made the campaign so effective in not only reducing drug use, but in changing the way in which subsequent advertising campaigns approached the subject.

"To communicate with people in that age group, you have to talk to them from within their world. Scaremongering is pointless because they won't listen. It will be the same when the Government tries to talk to teenagers about obesity. I'd be concerned if it tried to educate them, it just won't work, they need to be given the chance to make up their own minds after being presented with the facts."

Simon Riley, the creative on the account who is still at the agency, says the campaign had to be non-hysterical. "You can't say 'if you do drugs you'll die' because users know millions of people are doing them and not dying. This went against the scaremongering that had gone before."

He believes the thinking for any anti-obesity work will have to be similar. "The problems of obesity are long term and, therefore, less of a worry to most of the populace. This needs to be slowly turned around."

Meakin also thinks the ad agencies working on the obesity business can benefit from the explosion of digital. "Our ads only ran on radio and print and were still effective, so a campaign with intelligent use of digital and mobile media has a great chance of being really effective," she says.

RAISING AIDS AWARENESS AND AVOIDING AN EPIDEMIC

When looking at major public awareness campaigns about Aids, most people will think back to the "iceberg" work created by TBWA in the 80s that featured stark images and graphic facts about the disease to scare people into taking notice.

However, this was only the start of a full-scale public onslaught, created by BMP DDB Needham (which won the account in 1988), that stretched for six years: it picked up an IPA Effectiveness Award in 1988 as well as a poster award in Cannes, raised the profile of the disease and, arguably, helped avert an epidemic.

Chris Powell, the chief executive of the agency at the time, says: "The obesity issue will need to be tackled stage by stage, just like our Aids work. There is no quick fix. People need to be shown there is a problem, then that the problem affects them directly, then how they can avoid that problem.

"In the end, we made enormous progress by slowly following this strategy through as many media as we had at the time. It was like launching a new brand."

However, Powell thinks the effectiveness of the whole campaign can be seen by the drop in cases of gonorrhoea throughout its duration.

"That was used as a comparison and over the years we worked on the account, the figures dropped massively.

"And we didn't get the Aids epidemic that everybody initially feared."

USING GUILT TO WARN PASSENGERS TO BELT UP

This campaign from Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, called "Julie", which saw a teenager killing his mother in a car crash because he wasn't wearing a rear seatbelt, was a Four Star Winner at the IPA Effectiveness awards in 2000 because of its original way of looking at the problem of not wearing seatbelts.

Based on the fact that most people knew the person who killed them, the strategy used the public's own guilt to show how the selfish act of not wearing a seatbelt could actually lead to other people being harmed, not just themselves.

Paul Brazier, the executive creative director at AMV and one of the writers on the ad, says: "Guilt is a strong emotion and we thought this ad was exceptionally powerful. You have to try to connect with the consumer in a way that makes them think about their actions, but without patronising them."

However, he believes a different approach will be needed when tackling obesity. "It will be much more about moderation and moderating behaviour. Food is not, in itself, dangerous, but used wrongly it can be."

But he is confident in the ability of the industry to create effective work. He says: "Public awareness campaigns were always more complex than our work for commercial clients, but that is changing now.

"We make a lot of ads for Diageo, which is spending a lot to promote responsible drinking. Walkers is also changing its ad strategy. It will be this sort of thinking that fills the work for tackling obesity when it finally happens."