NHS Client profile

By The Drum, Administrator

March 8, 2007 | 7 min read

They’ve managed to get the word ‘wanker’ into headlines, they’ve used dolls in all manner of sexual positions and they’ve talked to the

over-50s about bottoms. So how did the team at GRP decide to tackle the NHS project to teach 13 to 15-year-olds not to rush into sex? Easy – they used Janet & John-style child-education books.

“The initial idea came from The Young Ones,” says the Glasgow agency’s art director Mark Williams. “You watched The Young Ones and then talked about it in the playground the next day. You watched it because it almost wasn’t meant for you – it felt like it was for an older generation and you weren’t meant to look at it.

“That’s one of the things we tried to do [with the Be Books] – push it to the point with the language and pictures, so when the kids got it in their hands, they felt like they’d got something underground with an edginess to it – almost as if ‘is this meant to be talking to me?’ I think we’re hopeful the kids will get them in their hands and read them.

“The other thing the client was careful about is that the literacy level of these kids is low. So the style in which the Be Books are written – the Janet & John style, which is basic, to say the least – is easier for them to understand.”

The result is startling. The books look fairly innocuous – until you open them and discover a new world of sexual explicitness, where girls act out oral sex with bananas and boys talk about their “baws being full to burstin’”.

Martin Cross, GRP’s creative director, was the copywriter behind the books. He says he focused on peer pressure and bullying and how they relate to sex. “It was about talking to 13 to 15-year-olds in the language they’d use,” he says. “Given the issues the NHS wanted to be in there, the obvious idea was to do something like Hollyoaks. But there was no point doing Hollyoaks because Hollyoaks has been done, and better than we could do with the budget.

“And because these books will be going out in the hands of youth workers, they’ll prompt anything we could do. So we wanted to find something else. I’m not sure it could have been done as well as these books. Someone said to me the other day, ‘The British won’t throw away a book.’ But in the end, the core idea was about taking positive role models and making them much more realistic. It’s about waiting until you meet ‘the one’. If there is a message, then it’s ‘when you feel it’s the right time’. That right time might be when you’re 13 or 14, or it might be when you’re in your twenties. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise”.

To illustrate the books, the team contacted Edinburgh-based fine artist Alan McGowan to design a parody of the Janet & John originals. “He went back to the original illustrators

and spent weeks experimenting,” says Williams. The resulting communication style is different to any previous sexual health campaign for teenagers.Â

“Most work in this area tries too hard to be consciously modern and down with kids,” says Williams. “It’s like your dad dancing at a wedding. I think our ‘traditional’ books are more shocking – and therefore hopefully more effective.”

As the books are being distributed through NHS Greater Glasgow, Lanarkshire, and Ayrshire and Arran by youth workers, there’s no chance of the message being confused. “We’re hoping there will be discussion about what kids get up to in the park on a weekend evening when they have a bottle of Buckie,” says Cross. “With this age group, the issues are complex and interconnected, and it would be easy to be too simplistic and patronising. You end up extrapolating the ‘just say no’ and telling kids to just say no without educating them.”

How GRP became the unlikely voicebox for the NHS

GRP has been working with the NHS since 2003, when it first worked for the Forth Valley and Lanarkshire NHS Trusts on a bowel cancer project. Talking to underprivileged people over 50, the campaign was a challenge, but the agency got around the demographic’s reluctance to talk about bottoms by using striking images of balloons.

Then, in 2004, GRP was approached by NHS Greater Glasgow, Lanarkshire, and Ayrshire and Arran to work on a joint initiative called Equal. Aimed at the gay community, it was to encourage the use of condoms and regular HIV tests. The result was the outrageously honest ‘gay dolls’ campaign, which stood out at that year’s Roses Awards.

“It was not always straightforward,” says GRP creative director Martin Cross. “The majority of HIV communication was talking about ‘victims’ and communicating in a very finger-wagging way. They were adamant we should avoid that.”

The ads ran in the gay press and washrooms. “It became very clear that they weren’t the usual kind of HIV ads,” says Cross. “And when they were being placed, the gay press were telling us how much the ads were liked. We’ve since heard the ads are being used in the UK and abroad to show health trusts how they should be talking to the community.”

A similar idea was mooted when the agency was approached to do a parallel campaign targeting lesbians, but it didn’t get the same positive reaction. “The campaign was using Barbie dolls,” says GRP art director Mark Williams. “But when we put the idea into research, lesbians hated the sound of it.”

So the agency when back to romance. “We realised there wasn’t a version of Mills & Boon for the gay community, so we came up with the idea of using the cheesy, romantic cover shots for the lesbian community,” says Cross. “We scoured secondhand bookshops to find old Mills & Boon illustrated copies. When we put the campaign into research we found there were a lot of unsatisfied lesbians out there.”

But working for the NHS doesn’t come without its frustrations. “You have to be very politically correct,” says Cross. “Some words are just not acceptable. You can’t talk about victimhood, or come across as finger-wagging. We struggled to get the ‘He hasn’t the balls to talk about HIV’ line into the Equal ads.”

All NHS marketing goes through research groups, something which brings it in line with many clients. But that’s where the similarity ends. “There’s a big difference between the NHS and a normal client,” says Cross. “If we got 90 per cent of a research group to say yes to a piece of Toyota work, the client would be punching the air. With this, if only one person in a group says they dislike a campaign, it’s rejected.”

That said, with a raft of award-winning work for the NHS behind it, GRP is looking to do more social marketing and is about to launch a campaign for the next phase of the Equal campaign. This time, explicit pictures in the form of airline information cards will communicate the message.

“It’s a great account to work on because you can be really creative,” says Williams. “You’re also working with people – social workers – who want to do something because they want to see it actually work, not because they want to be seen to be doing something. They’re willing to take risks if they know it’s going to work. The difficulty is that with each campaign the client’s expectation is sharpened, so each new campaign has to be better and push the boundaries even more.”


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