'Our NHS' needs a new big idea
A view from Jeremy Lee

'Our NHS' needs a new big idea

The recent furore over Maxine Peak being paid for an NHS recruitment ad merely highlights the fact that the institution needs to pack a more powerful punch in its advertising.

There was an amusing enough little spat between the Mail on Sunday and actor Maxine Peake when the paper revealed that the Corbyn-supporting actor had been paid – sorry, "pocketed taxpayers’ money" – for providing the voiceover for the current NHS England recruitment ad. (Just imagine the confected outrage the paper could have come up with if it had also found out that the agency that created the campaign, MullenLowe, is owned by the Americans.)

Peake – a vocal critic of the government who also appeared in Labour’s 2017 election broadcast – pointed out on Twitter that she had donated the fee to The Salford Foundation Trust, a charity that supports young people in that area. 

Her spokesperson later said that the star of Dinnerladies had participated in a number of charity voiceovers, including NSPCC and Cancer Research, which had paid a nominal fee or none at all. This was all a sideshow, however, to the wider issue that the nursing shortage is at a record level and whether enough is being done about it. 

"Our NHS." There can’t be many people left who haven’t become bored of politicians from parties of all hues repeating opportunistically this mantra to the point beyond where smelling salts could be the cure. But the fact is we all care (or should) and take a profound interest in the future of the NHS, given that it belongs to us and that most of our lives depend upon it and the care of the people who, often in very difficult circumstances, work within it. 

So is this campaign big enough to tug at that something that lies deep within us (well, those of us with hearts) and help create the emotional connection? Does it show effectively the extraordinary lengths the NHS goes to in keeping people alive?

With programmes such as Channel 4’s 24 Hours in A&E showing the drama, the heroics, the joy and the pathos of the NHS, making a powerful impact and hoping to arrest attention has become more difficult than ever. 

MullenLowe appears to have eschewed this route in favour of Peake’s down-to-earth and reassuring Northern warmth, alongside numerous cheap and cheerful vignettes of health professionals going about their everyday work – from helping those arriving in the cradle to assisting those a little bit closer to the grave.

As advertising goes, it’s reassuring and inoffensive and made with care (as well as the TV ad there are numerous executions of shorter films showing the 350 different nursing careers on offer and designed for social media), but perhaps it lacks the power needed.

The agency seems to have suggested a content approach, when content about the NHS is something that we already have plenty of – whether that be on the news, in entertainment, in factual programming or in our everyday interactions with the service.

Given that the NHS admits 100,000 positions in its workforce remain unfilled, what must be in itself the ‘biggest idea’ of the post-war settlement looks in need of a ‘big idea’ of its own.


Jeremy Lee is contributing editor at Campaign