The Department of Health’s Change4Life campaign: a change too far?

The Department of Health’s Change4Life campaign, and its Aardman-created stars, re-emerged with an extended remit recently. But is it right to use a brand designed to help children to stay fit and healthy to also highlight the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption? Or does the campaign’s message risk being watered down?

Last week saw Change4Life re-emerge onto television screens with a new messaging at its core, highlighting the potential dangers of excessive drinking. But, the decision to air the ads featuring the established Aardman-created Change4Life figures plus cartoon wine and beer glasses appears counterintuitive to its original mission of helping children stay active and healthy. Is it too far a leap to take?The move to extend Change4Life into a wider remit of tackling obesity, smoking and alcohol awareness was announced by the Department of Health last April after it admitted that cuts in advertising had seen the number of people joining Change4Life falling by 80% and calls to the Change4Life information line also falling by 90%. In addition, web visits had tumbled by two thirds. A couponing push with the News of the World achieved just 780,000 swaps.This negative impact forced government officials to reverse its advertising freeze – which had been imposed in favour of a “nudge” approach – and reinstate advertising under a smaller budget, down to £14m from £25m.According to health secretary Andrew Lansley: "Change4Life is a fantastic, well-known campaign, that has already helped a million families around the country. I want to expand it beyond eating well and moving more, so people look after themselves and really do live longer."But is this the right move for a campaign that has the most resonance with parents and children?Marco Scognamiglio, CEO, RAPP UK, thinks the extra strands to the campaign can work well.He said: “Change 4 Life is the same as many other brands trying to get the most out of their marketing budget. I think the characters are memorable and the thread running through all the work is about being healthy. I don’t think it’s such a leap to go from obesity to alcohol consumption.“The issue for any brand using only TV is that they would be limited as to how far they can engage viewers. It’s what they do off TV – in digital and social in particular - that will be pivotal in changing people’s behaviour. In fact, I think there is more of an opportunity to do both jobs well. If they are clever in their choice of media off the screen, they can get more than one message across with the same budget and this is a consideration for all brands.”Assets such as an online calculator on the Change4Life website which allows users to check how much they are drinking and work out whether they need to cut down and two million leaflets available for Change4Life supporters and health professionals around the country have backed the TV burst.However others are not so convinced that the initiative’s tact of using the Aardman figures in such a mainstream way to promote an anti-binge drinking message rather than its traditional eat well and keep active theme will help to counter the ill-effects of the nudge approach.Simon Myers, CEO & Partner of Figtree Creative Services, said: “The government's preferred method of promoting better outcomes through 'nudge' behaviour has yet to be proven as more effective than previous government attempts to change people's everyday behaviour but it would be churlish not to wish them every success. “Change4Life does feel however slightly dwarfed by the significant social, cultural and economic realities that make eating healthier and moving around particularly arduous for the audience whose behaviour the government would like to change. Will exhortation and explanation be more effective than actually doing something such as national cooking on a budget classes with celebrity chef? I doubt it. It may simply highlight advertising and communications limited role in behavourial change - something you won’t hear about from an advertising agency or the sultans of spin in government.”The Department of Health’s marketing director Sheila Mitchell says the ambition of extending the campaign is simply to "raise awareness of the serious health harms caused by regularly drinking even slightly over the guidelines."Yet in the backdrop of this push, another government minister is urging a separate campaign group to tackle the junk food crisis that Change4Life initially set out to tackle.Ed Vaizey MP, the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, has been encouraging the Children's Food Campaign to lodge complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority where it believes that advertising rules have been broken. Brands under fire include Kellogg's Krave, Nesquik and Cadbury's Buttons.It claims that the offending company websites are promoting products that are classified as "high in sugars or fat or salt", and are clearly targeted at children.A CFC spokeswoman said: “This complaint aims to be an exposé of how junk food manufacturers bombard kids online in order to push their unhealthy products. With Change4Life now focusing on alcohol, the message is being lost and there is a pervasive nature of online junk food marketing to children which really leaves us with no choice but to submit this 'super-complaint'.” The CFC’s complaints are drawn from a report published by CFC and the British Heart Foundation in December, called 'The 21st Century Gingerbread House: How Companies Are Marketing Junk Food to Children Online', which highlighted the use of brand characters, animations, games, competitions, promotions, videos and social networking sites, which it claims, clearly target and are appealing to children.The CFC argued that none of the products complained about could be promoted during children's TV programmes because of Ofcom rules to protect children from junk food advertising, and called for consistent regulations across all forms of media.The CFC spokeswoman added: "It is time for the ASA to face the music – will it or will it not act to protect children from cynical junk food marketing practices? This is not just our challenge, but comes from the minister Ed Vaizey, who has expressed his faith in the current self-regulatory system.”The Lords Science and Technology Committee has also said that the Government should take "a more realistic view of the range of programmes that children watch and ensue Change4Life plays its part". At present, ads for foods high in fat, sugar and salt are banned during children's programmes and those with particular appeal to children up to the age of 16.Myers says that economic pressures means that “it makes perfect sense to try and use one brand to get the message across about the need for healthier lifestyles and is consolidating different initaitves under one banner.”Indeed, alcohol awareness does fit in with the Change4Life identity. Yet, it remains to be seen whether or not such a youth-oriented scheme can really tackle the issues its predecessors tackled using animated characters targeted around children – or if the government may need to rethink just how mature they want to be with such crucial messaging.

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