Adland should solve the obesity problem it helped to create

The debate around Cancer Research's recent obesity campaign has put advertising in the spotlight once again. Could the industry be doing more?

Anomaly’s recent campaign for Cancer Research UK is a cleverly elegant and beautifully crafted piece of communication that grabs the attention of its audience – and by that marker alone could be considered a success. However, it has also triggered huge debate and, looking at the furore around it, I wonder whether it may have missed a trick.

Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought:

  1. The ads are offensive and fat-shaming – they will trigger misery and comfort eating, not positive behaviour change.
  2. The ads are just what’s required – fat people just need a "nudge" to incentivise weight loss and being informed that, like smokers, their lifestyle choices are putting them at risk of grave illness is helpful to them.

The reality, of course, is that it is much more complex than this.

Borrowing from now-outlawed tobacco advertising, the recent obesity ads are hard to ignore in that they have achieved something that so much advertising struggles to do in a complex space: be noticed and make people actually look at what you are saying.

However, the role of advertising is not only to attract attention; it is also to create a desired response.  The stated objective of CRUK’s campaign is to compel the government to take action to protect the population (especially children) from all-too-tempting, nutritionally empty high-calorie foods and to arm it with greater knowledge around the importance of balancing calorie consumption with adequate calorie expenditure.

Putting aside the question of whether a campaign with a mass consumer audience is the best means of inciting policy change, one could debate whether a clearer communication of the underlying issue (high-calorie foods consumed in excess can, like smoking, lead to life-threatening health conditions) would have been to depict these kinds of foodstuffs with a graphic health warning of the sort seen on cigarette packets. Internal organs wreathed in human tallow; arteries clogged by fatty deposits; stumps where body parts have been lost to type 2 diabetes… these would certainly be offputting as we reach for the second helping of sugary cereal or that delicious but unnecessary doughnut.

However, it’s all too easy to imagine the legal difficulty of bringing a campaign like this to life and, anyway, the issue is not as simple as "Don’t eat it" – it’s more about the amount we eat and how much we move to balance out that consumption.  

I wonder if the question we should actually be asking is: what else could the agency have done to guide its client’s overall objectives?

Just as with alcohol and smoking, our industry is part of the problem that CRUK is looking to solve; the intelligence, insight and craft we possess have helped to make unhealthy foods and unhealthy habits seem attractive, delicious and cool. Advertising sets expectations and incites desires – to look a certain way, to behave a certain way, to be (or at least appear to be) a certain sort of person – and this is why I feel those of us who work in it are brilliantly positioned and under a burden of responsibility to try to tackle these issues better.

Without knowledge of the briefing or the content of strategic conversations between agency and client, one can only speculate, but it feels like this campaign would have benefited from being more holistic so that, as well as delivering important and shocking information, it also offered guidance to act. It could have pointed towards resources to help people become more aware of calorie consumption and expenditure. It could have acknowledged the complexity and, above all, mental-health aspects of overeating as an issue.

How might it have looked if CRUK’s campaign had worked in a way that directly helped those who need it: the people who have a disordered and unhealthy relationship with food (whatever the reason behind that might be) and who need assistance overcoming that?

Fat-shaming is a problem. For years, communications culture has overlooked the fact that few people are really the slim, toned ideal that advertising has held up. Being fat is seen as an external indicator of laziness, moral turpitude and personal failing, and this serves no-one well. Whether or not my obese mother’s premature death from skin cancer was in part a cellular response to the excess weight she carried is uncertain (I happen to believe it was contributory).

What is not in question, though, is the fact that she deliberately avoided presenting an obviously abnormal mole to her doctor until it was far too late. The reason for her reticence was a fear of the GP surgery – a place where, for all her adult life, she had felt berated and ashamed, "in trouble" for weighing so much and where her weight increase over time was seen as a failure to respond to the information she was given every time she was there. Cancer, related to obesity, killed my mother. Fact.

On the other hand, we are at an interesting point in time as communications culture tries to be more diverse. Recently, in response to the backlash against unrepresentative ads, there has been a swing away from "thin". "Inclusivity" is positively driving a more normal range of body shapes in advertising, but some of these are as unhealthy as the unrealistically thin depictions of beauty that have been the norm for many years. Overweight people know they are not healthy in their day-to-day physical experience; feeling tired, uncomfortable, breathless and slower than others tells them this. However, research shows that knowledge around some of the specific risks (such as cancer) is lower than it should be. There is a need for people to better understand the dangers they face.

But instead of just risk awareness, I would like to see future campaigns built around a living idea – one that seeks to reframe obesity, its societal aspects and its impact on people’s lives – that produces more empathetic and actively helpful communications. We need a powerful thought, an overarching idea that could exist for decades, that sits above all kinds of campaigns (from risk awareness to positive behaviour change), unites multiple stakeholders in a joint endeavour and governs not just communications but activations, experiences and maybe even product development and business decisions. Perhaps by using the intelligence and creativity at our disposal to counsel and guide organisations with platforms and budgets, we could get to solutions that can really help? 

Charlotte Stone is a strategy director at Publicis.Poke

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