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‘There was no silver bullet’: How Change4Life tackled childhood obesity
In 2008, the Government released a report that revealed the true scale of the UK’s childhood obesity crisis. Cue images of obese children plastered on the front pages of national newspapers.
The nation was home to a growing number of overweight kids. The Department of Health had to act. And act differently. There had to be substantial investment in long-term activity that would put the issue of childhood obesity in front of mums and dads.
Thus, in 2008, the Government unveiled its obesity strategy and, in 2009, Change4Life was born. Its task? To campaign around the issue but in the broader context of lifestyle changes.
It has been 10 years since the Department of Health launched England’s first government-led healthy lifestyle initiative, which memorably invited families to “eat well, move more and live longer”. The department also promised to go big on spend, injecting an estimated £25m into media spend alone.
“We knew the campaign, over a period of time, was going to have to tackle so many different issues,” says Public Health England (PHE) marketing director Sheila Mitchell, who has been with the organisation since the launch.
“There was a need to address a whole multiplicity of behaviours. There was never a silver bullet.”
Set against a recognisable yellow backdrop, Change4Life was home to brightly coloured, unidentifiable clay characters who were intended to represent everyone and alienate no one.
The initiative and the first ad campaign went live in January 2009 and during the 10 years that followed, a wealth of content was produced. It also welcomed a range of partners into the Change4Life family, including Disney, Tesco and the BBC.
Healthy eating was seen as a middle-class concept at the time and loving your kids was about giving them treats and nice foods.
Sheila Mitchell, Public Health England
Four million families have since signed up to the initiative, which is no mean feat given the mass of advertising for unhealthy food.
In fact, children are still consuming two times more than the recommended sugar intake, but that compares with three times more before the initiative took off.
Mitchell says there was no quick fix and Change4Life was always intended to be a soft-nudge project aimed at gradually reversing years of poor eating habits and incentivising lifestyle changes, large and small.
Childhood obesity is a complex issue, however, and the campaign faced resistance from one of the toughest, but most important, audiences – parents.
“There were a few big guiding insights that came screaming through, one of which was that mum and dads didn’t see childhood obesity as their problem,” Mitchell reflects.
“Healthy eating was also seen as a middle-class concept at the time and loving your kids was all about giving them treats and nice foods. Parents would prioritise kids’ short-term happiness over long-term health benefits.”
When Mitchell reflects on what she saw in the media 10 years ago, she refers to images of obese children, noting that the press was often guilty of “sensationalising fat kids”.
“The biggest resistance we faced was ‘it’s not my kids’, it’s other people’s kids’. When we looked at what was happening in the media 10 years ago, there were dreadful pictures on the front of the paper and the television – that is what people thought obese was,” Mitchell explains.
A lot can change in a decade and Mitchell says PHE was always on its toes, working closely with policy teams to ensure its messaging and latest campaigns would align with any new guidelines.
She adds that the creative vehicle, produced with the help of its long-standing agency M&C Saatchi, continues to thrive because of its ability to move with the times.
“There has been a range of areas that we have covered over the years with this creative vehicle. It has been flexible enough to wrap itself around different policy agendas and critical behaviours,” says Mitchell .
“The creative idea has changed a bit over time. But it’s like a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes pack – you don’t really notice the changes unless someone else points them out.”
Mitchell adds that the versatility of the creative idea also allowed PHE to move on from talking about the right size meal, to speaking to parents about healthy snacking swaps, before moving onto the conversation around sugar in the past few years. It also introduced a helpline and a health app, as well as a prosperous social media community.
Change4Life has no doubt been a driving force behind major changes to legislation, such as the introduction of the sugar tax in 2018. It has also generated a huge amount of awareness. By 2017, 91% of mothers of all children aged between five and 11 were aware of the campaign.
“I always think marketing directors get fed up with their own campaigns before the public do. We often say, ‘has this run out of steam?’,” Mitchell confesses.
“We monitor whether people are getting tired of it, or fed up with it all the time and the answer is no. We still see high levels of traffic.”
Change4Life in brief
- The first media campaign for Change4Life launched in January 2009.
- By 2016, 98% of state-funded primary schools had engaged in the campaign.
- Four million families have signed up to Change4Life.
- Plans for a Sugar Tax were announced in 2016 and in 2018 it was applied to soft drinks.
- 91% of mothers of children aged 5 to 11 were aware of Change4Life by 2017.
- There have been 5.4 million downloads of Change4Life apps.
- Children are now consuming two times too much sugar each day, compared to three times before the initiative launched.
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