Cancer Research campaign causes a commotion
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Cancer Research campaign causes a commotion

Cancer Research UK has set itself the laudable aim of sparking government action on obesity, but its latest campaign is proving a bitter pill to swallow for some.

Cancer Research UK launched itself into July with the latest iteration of a nationwide campaign to raise awareness of the link between obesity and cancer. The charity’s latest figures show that there are now twice as many obese people as smokers in the UK and, as a result, obesity has become the leading cause of bowel, kidney, ovarian and liver cancer.

To highlight these findings and, in the charity’s words, to “show how policy change can help people form healthier habits”, the campaign explicitly compares smoking and obesity. Billboard adverts styled to look like branded cigarette packets declare ‘Obesity is a cause of cancer too’ and ‘Like smoking, obesity puts millions of adults at greater risk of cancer’.

In a healthcare space that CIM’s Ally-Lee Boone describes as “filling up with misinformation,” a fact-based message delivered by an authoritative voice on the subject might ordinarily be welcomed. However, this particular campaign has not been universally well-received. Many have suggested that the adverts are more an accusation than a call to action and lack a clear message to the government. To make matters worse, social media quickly responded to the Cancer Research UK tweet that unveiled the ads with accusations of ‘fat shaming’.

“Cancer Research isn’t sending a message to customers here,” says CIM marketing director Gemma Butler. “It doesn’t have customers. It has people who are dying of cancer. That is its harsh reality and it is seeking to change it for the better. To do that though, it needs to cut through a lot of noise, which means being loud and clear.”

The tone is certainly loud and clear, but is it a message capable of cutting through to the right place? Chief executive Michelle Mitchell wants the campaign to “inspire policies that create a healthier environment”. Because government-led action worked in tackling smoking, Cancer Research UK believes it can – and must – do the same for obesity, hence a campaign linking the two. However, says Lee-Boone, “Even if the advert’s message is taken the right way, the message still seems to be that individuals need to take responsibility. Taken alone, the ads are not noticeably aimed at the government.”

Dig deeper and it’s quickly apparent that Cancer Research UK is diligent in its attempt to spark political action. It wants the government to do more to hit its own target of halving childhood obesity rates by 2030 and is proposing specific measures to achieve this (a 9pm watershed for TV and online junk food ads, for example). “The ads may be designed simply to kick-start a public conversation about moving the UK towards a prevention culture,” says Butler, “but until Cancer Research makes it obvious that it is calling for the government to take responsibility – and not just individuals – the person in the street is liable to take its message the wrong way.”

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Tobias Gourlay Journalist
Gemma Butler Director of Marketing CIM
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