U.K. Stops Blaming Marketers, Enlists Them to Help Fight Obesity

Multimedia Campaign Aims to Change Nation's Eating Habits

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LONDON (AdAge.com) -- The U.K. government has stopped using the marketing industry as a whipping boy for the obesity epidemic and is now enlisting marketers and agencies to help combat the problem.
The $740 million U.K. government initiative called 'Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives' intends to create a cultural shift in the nation's eating habits.
The $740 million U.K. government initiative called 'Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives' intends to create a cultural shift in the nation's eating habits. Credit: AP

In the biggest move, Health Secretary Alan Johnson announced a $150 million multimedia campaign over three years aimed at creating a cultural shift in the nation's eating habits. Agencies are scrambling to get on the pitch list for the campaign, which is due to break this summer. The drive will "empower parents to make changes to their children's diet and increase levels of physical activity," Mr. Johnson said in a statement.

The campaign will form part of a larger $740 million government initiative called "Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives" that will go beyond advertising. Instead of nagging people to be healthy, the idea is to create a "movement" that parents and commercial partners can participate in. To avoid alienating a skeptical public, the campaign will not be branded as a government initiative.

Similar efforts successful
Hamish Pringle, director general of the U.K.'s ad agency association, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, said, "IPA members have wished to be part of the solution for some time. Obesity is a difficult social problem with many complex causes but advertising has been successful in achieving attitudinal shifts in other sectors such as anti-smoking and AIDS awareness."

A pitch for the three-year campaign will be run through the Central Office of Information, the U.K. government's marketing and communications arm, which will put together a roster of agencies to work on the project. The endeavor is scheduled to begin this summer.

Young children will be the focus of the first wave of the push, followed by teenagers and then adults.

"There is no silver bullet to solve the complex problem, but a united approach, with industry and government working in partnership, would be the most effective way to help improve the health of the nation," said Peta Buscombe, chief executive of another industry group, the Advertising Association.

Marketers wary of ban
Mr. Johnson also said that the government has ruled out a blanket ban on TV advertising for junk food aimed at kids. Instead, it will speed up a review of new restrictions on junk food TV advertising. Originally scheduled for December 2008, the review will now happen in July.

Marketers and media owners are hoping for a reprieve from efforts to impose a ban on TV advertising of junk food before 9 p.m. Such a ban would threaten more than $400 million a year in TV advertising revenues, according to Government regulator Ofcom.

Many government ministers are believed to be keen on extending the restrictions on junk-food advertising, but some officials fear that the lost ad revenue would be too damaging to the quality of TV programs.

Other measures underway to combat obesity in the U.K. include introducing a new, simple, food labeling to replace two existing schemes that are often confusing and sometimes contradictory. Retailers and manufacturers must be persuaded to adopt a single scheme if the initiative is to work.

Mr. Johnson has also mooted additional anti-obesity measures, including refusing permission for fast-food outlets to open near schools.

An alarming government report predicts that if action is not taken, almost nine in ten adults and two-thirds of children in the U.K. will be overweight or obese by 2050.
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