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Hacking childhood obesity: Can advertising save the world?

Can we solve childhood obesity with the same creative thinking that caused it? That’s the question Tom Le Bree asked himself after his chosen profession led him into a moral quandary. We caught up with the RehabStudio partner at The Drum’s recent Disruption Day conference to find out how he is hacking the creative process to improve it for the modern world.

“For anyone who has ever questioned whether or not advertising works, childhood obesity is the most solid case for its effectiveness.”

Strong words indeed for someone previously consumed with, in his own words, “flogging fizzy drinks to an already fat nation”, but it was this realisation that changed forever the ways in which Tom Le Bree would employ his creativity.

After years of “selling people stuff they don’t want for money they don’t have,” Le Bree decided that this “socially acceptable, but morally questionable” career wasn’t for him. At least not in its current format.

No doubt spurred on by the fact that he was surrounded by people doing something “ethically sound” (his mother is a nurse, his father and wife both doctors), and that the most discernible skill he possessed was advertising, he got to thinking: “can advertising save the world?”

Le Bree argues that advertising is great at solving problems as it helps make people aware of an issue, makes them understand it more, and makes them change their behaviour. “If you change the context they could be client briefs,” he says.

Since having this revelation Le Bree and the team at RehabStudio have committed to dedicating at least some of their time to working on personal projects with positive outcomes – problems that can benefit from advertising creativity.

One problem they decided to tackle was childhood obesity, which he says is particularly pertinent because it’s a problem advertising caused, evidenced by the fact it has grown in line with ad spend.

“At present in the western world, 30 per cent of children are clinically obese and 80 per cent of fat kids become fat adults. There are two solutions for tackling this, neither of which is particularly costly – get them to eat less or get them to move more.”

In the belief that people’s diet is a much larger, more complex problem than they were able to tackle, the agency set about finding a way to get people to move more, although this isn’t as easy as imagined with a prevailing attitude among parents that their children already get enough exercise. “They say ‘C’mon they’re kids. They’re out and about running all over the place, right?’ Wrong.”

He points to a University College London poll which found 75 per cent of parents thought their children got enough exercise, but only 10 per cent actually did. This gave the agency its starting point for ‘hacking’ obesity.

“We decided we should change exercise from a chore into game, and what’s more, one that parents could monitor. We created an online universe of collectable monsters called Stomps where the more a child moves in the real world the more they can do with their monsters in our virtual one.”

The smartphone game and associated Fitbit tracker encourages kids by tracking their movements in the real world and letting them move through a virtual world where they can collect monsters. They can play individually via mini-games or to battle with friends.

“Put simply, it’s Pokemon combined with a pedometer.”

The idea went on Kickstarter earlier this year but, through what Le Bree admits was the agency’s own fault, it failed to make its target. Since this setback the agency has been approached by numerous health authorities, and early user testing has proved positive due to it using monsters rather than metrics.

Le Bree remains confident that the project in some form will prove successful, especially given what he sees as the future trend that will disrupt healthcare – that of people using small data and sensors to monitor their own personal health data.

Disruption Day photography by Bronac McNeill

He points to Google contact lens, edible technology (sensors you can eat) and embeddables (tech that can be woven into your skin), as well as the growth in Google searches for Fitbit in the run up to Black Friday, as proof of public appetite for such technologies.

“Medicine is going to be more about arming doctors with information and at present the majority of the info they get is filtered through what people want them to think, but how many answer honestly when asked how much they drink?

“In the future your doctor isn’t going to rely only on what you tell them. Instead you will go to them with actual figures and they will catch things earlier as they spend less time on gathering information.”

Just as Stomps looks to turn meaningless metrics into monsters to make a difference, all the numbers in the world are nothing without narrative. Instead, says Le Bree, the future of healthcare “relies on small data but with a process with which to make it understandable”. And who better to provide narrative and promote understanding than the ad industry? Who knows, maybe advertising really can save the world.

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