How public health marketing has changed over 100 years and where it's headed next

Public Health England is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Ministry of Information during World War I with an exhibition tracing the development of public health campaigns over the last century.

The exhibition launched at an event yesterday evening and will later tour around places such as local authority health offices, ultimately being installed permanently at its new headquarters in Harlow, Essex.

The exhibition is also available online.

Speaking to Campaign, Sheila Mitchell, marketing director of PHE, said that when selecting the contents of the exhibition, "we mapped out what were the big totemic public health moments – and then looked at what were the big moments in terms of [general] advertising. And then we asked, how has health advertising reflected those developments?" 

The exhibition divides the 100 years into five eras, titled Fighting Fit, War to Welfare, Age of Aspiration, Age of Fear and Age of Participation.

Changing the messaging strategies being used over time was necessary, Mitchell said, as their impact becomes lessened by familiarity.

She pointed to the decline of the hard-hitting ads common in the 80s and 90s: "There’s always an underlying idea that if you shock people they will be so horrified they will act.

"And if you look back at the 80s that was probably correct – shock was acceptable to some extent. But it gets harder and harder to keep shocking people. In some ways, it’s got to be new news to get their attention."

Bus drink | Public Health England

More recent campaigns feature a more two-way interaction with the public, as the label "Age of Participation" suggests. Mitchell picked out "Change 4 life" as one that particularly illustrated the best current thinking in public health marketing.

"It’s the flagship campaign which talks about a difficult issue – how do you feed your kids?" she said.

"We’ve designed the campaign so it could be open source and really flexible for lots of organisaiton to use it, and we have a huge number of partners. It’s also designed as a campaign that could flex itself around different government policies."

When it comes to the next chapter, Mitchell said: "We’re like the rest of the marketing industry – we need to ask where is the technology taking us, and how is that relevant to getting people health advice?"

This is likely to lead to an increased use of channels like chatbots, to help people with, for example, stopping smoking.

Smoking Kids | Public Health England

Mitchell agreed that the trend was for PHE to provide assets that could bridge the gap between marketing and treatment.

"That’s where we’re heading and where we want to go to," she said. "What we’ll do in the marketing team is develop different products and services. And then we have a suite of tools and assets and then question is how do you take these deeper into the health service?"

One example is the Active Ten walking tracker app, which encourages users to walk briskly. "We’ve had 450,000 [people] who’ve downloaded that," Mitchell said. "The next step would be to take that into the GP referral system."

100 years on from the creation of the Ministry of Information, the UK may no longer be a nation at war - but it is clear that marketing has an ever more sophisticated role to play in solving many of the challenges we face as a society.

Change4Life Be Food Smart TV ad 2013

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