News Analysis: Public Health Report - Should Private Sector 'Sell' Health?

Article excerpt

The government has called on marketers to help it turn health into an aspirational commodity. James Curtis reports.

The advertising industry knows everything about peddling 'lifestyle' to consumers. People are constantly influenced in their choice of brands by what they say about them, and the food and drink sector is no exception.

But what about health? Can the ad industry sell it to the nation as effectively and seductively as a pint of lager or a packet of crisps?

This was one of the questions raised by last week's White Paper on public health, which challenged the ad industry to 'promote health on the principles that commercial markets use, making it something people aspire to'.

In the 'Choosing Health' document, the government also calls for 'new communications' and the use of 'social marketing techniques' to actively promote healthy lifestyles, and even suggests that the food and drink industry should part-fund these campaigns.

Can health be 'sold' as a sexy lifestyle choice? Does the White Paper's call for change imply that the government's current health campaigns, co-ordinated by the COI, need a radical overhaul? And, after being threatened with having to put 'traffic-light' labels on packaging and a ban on their ads, can the food and drink industry be expected to pay for campaigns that, ultimately, are designed to reduce demand for their products?

Future direction

Cilla Snowball is chairman of ad agency Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, which, along with Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Euro RSCG London, won a gold at the recent IPA Effectiveness Awards for the 'Tobacco control' campaign initiated by the Department of Health (DoH), British Heart Foundation (BHF) and Cancer Research UK. She does not believe the White Paper is calling for a fundamental overhaul of the government's health communications, arguing that 'Tobacco control' and the AMV BBDO-created 'Think!' road-safety campaign show there is no lack of marketing expertise in the DoH or COI.

However, she adds that because these campaigns used a 'multiple partner approach' and unite stakeholders 'around a common theme or brand', they point to a more co-ordinated approach to health campaigns in future.

'The real answer to fighting obesity lies in long-term behavioural change,' she says. 'That means sustained funding over time and a joined-up approach.

We are not just talking about food, but about using marketing to change people's lifestyle choices. It's very hard to do, but not impossible.'

Snowball says 'Think!' and 'Tobacco control' exemplify the 'social marketing techniques' mentioned in the White Paper, as they made use of the infrastructure of social support - such as GPs, drop-in centres and helplines. They also rallied support at public, private, local and national levels.

The issue of how to promote a healthy lifestyle in a way that is as exciting, entertaining and engaging as advertising for Walkers or McDonald's is intriguing. …