30th July 2020

People of Britain: your country(’s health service) needs you!

The UK Government has called upon its people to wage a war. The enemy? Obesity. The foot soldiers? The overweight occupants of Great Britain.

That is, in a nutshell, the crux of what came out in the news this week when the UK Government announced its new “Better Health” campaign as part of its obesity strategy.

The initiative is outlined in a policy paper that details tactics like applying more restrictive rules on advertising high fat, sugar, and salt foods (HFSS), increased calorie labelling on food, and, with the help of supplied apps and programmes, encouraging all overweight Brits to lose five pounds.

Though the campaign is yet to officially go live, the preamble has already received its fair share of coverage. This is in part thanks to a publicity video of Boris Johnson’s new exercise routine, which sees the British PM work out in slacks and a dress shirt.

Mainly though, the conversation has come from UK health minister Matt Hancock’s quantifying Britain’s potential weight loss against taxpayer pounds.

In a statement about the initiative, Hancock said: “If everyone who is overweight lost five pounds, it could save the NHS over £100 million over the next five years”. He added: “More importantly, given the link between obesity and coronavirus, losing weight could be lifesaving.”

Let’s unpack this.

Now, more than ever

The Better Health campaign is not a pointless exercise, but its first foray in the public eye may render it as such.

Hancock’s comments come off the back of a recent report by Public Health England, Excess Weight and Covid-19, which outlines findings that show those who are overweight have both an increased risk of contracting Covid-19 and requiring advanced treatment, including ventilation.

In the current climate, any increase in risk leads to a strain on the country’s health service, endangering the lives of its patients. Addressing this, Hancock’s comments prioritise cost-saving (for the NHS) over lifesaving, muddying the campaign’s overall objectives of improving citizens’ health and inciting divisive headlines like “Lose 5lbs to save NHS”. Perhaps Hancock is playing on the British public’s affection for the NHS, but will this sacrificial request resonate with them?

UK PM Boris Johnson with dog Dilyn. Johnson said being "too fat" contributed to him being to sent to ICU for Covid-19 treatment. Photo credit: Andrew Parsons.

In this together

Initial messaging has also worked hard to alienate the very audience segments it pertains to target. Despite repeat messaging from Johnson on the importance of providing support and working together, the tone of the statements, combined with the repeated use of BMI, may have the opposite effect.

Breezy but staunchly anti-nannying, Johnson’s video delivery serves to undermine those it wishes to reach, with messages of “try this app or joining the gym” blatantly ignoring the complexity of issues with obesity and those that it affects.

Added to that, BMI, the leading health indicator in the Excess Weight and Covid Report, is increasingly considered to be a redundant and discriminatory way of determining a person’s health. In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Dr Sabrina Strings discusses the history of the index, shedding light on its origins as a measurement for European men. 

In line with this thinking, for the NHS to centre its research on health and weight around BMI can be considered somewhat pointless, particularly as the report itself highlights how these issues are particularly prevalent within “more deprived areas and BAME groups”.

Stepping up to the post

The Better Health campaign is still in its early stages, and we can only speculate on the effects it will or will not have on the British public and the NHS.

However, as Johnson and Hancock move forward with, alongside their ask of the nation, they should consider an ask of their communications team and strive towards a campaign that evokes a little less conversation and little more action.

A public health initiative of this kind should be built on empathy and understanding, which highlights the physical and mental pressures of maintaining a healthy weight, not a blunt request to shed a few pounds.

About the author

Sinéad works with clients to creatively plan and implement their brand and campaign communications. With a vast and varied background in content planning and development, she is an expert storyteller, bringing brands to life both online and off.

Feature image credit: EPA

Join the Circle

Get 360’s intelligent communications updates, insights, and research delivered to your inbox every quarter.