A simple message for public health

Last weekend, just over 50 hardy souls braved the wind, rain and mud to take part in my local parkrun. Particular credit to Alison, in her early sixties and the oldest runner on the day, who got round the hilly course in a creditable 33 minutes.

I’m not sure if Alison noticed, but not far from the park is a billboard emblazoned with the words “How are you?”. That’s one of the advertising messages in the latest £3 million health campaign from Public Health England, called ‘One You’, designed to get people like Alison (and me) to take our health more seriously.

By all means call me an old cynic, but if those three words are really all it takes to get the nation fit, I will give up my beloved wine gums for life.

The government press release that went with the launch of the ‘One You’ campaign was long on problems and short on solutions. Despite some jazzy ad executions and smart partnerships with retailers like Amazon and Asda, the centre-piece appears to be a health quiz and website which will point out the errors of our ways.

Changing people’s behaviour through communications isn’t easy. To be effective, a set of messages need to be believable, appealing, motivating, relevant and memorable. Unfortunately, Public Health England’s seem to fail on four of the five tests.

On the plus side, ‘One You’ uses simple language which is understandable, factual, and honest, which means their claims appear credible. No scaremongering or health hype here. However, the laudable emphasis on plain-talking seems to have been pursued at the expense of everything else.

The language and messaging used on their website is overly simplistic, at times banal, and focused single-mindedly on negative behaviours rather than positives. Their messages therefore come across as unappealing and unlikely to inspire action. Insights such as “What you eat is so important for your health and your waistline” and “Smoking damages your body in many ways” aren’t news and certainly aren’t compelling.

The relevance of the campaign is also questionable. It claims to be targeting the middle-aged but this demographic is huge, around one fifth of the whole UK population. As such it is inevitably diverse, complex and needs much more specific targeting than the campaign appears to offer.

Finally, effective messaging needs to be memorable. This campaign sadly isn’t. Public Health England have shot off yet another health messaging ‘firework’ which will sparkle briefly before fizzling out. To change behaviours we need something more long-lasting, a health campaign ‘lighthouse’ which illuminates and endures over time.

Perhaps, rather than rushing to put up more adverts, Public Health England could have spent some time with people like Alison and parkrun. parkrun is an amazing organisation that, through local volunteers and national sponsors, puts on free, timed 5k races across the UK every Saturday morning. Starting in 2004 in a park in Teddington, the organisation has grown so that around 80,000 people take part in one of the hundreds of UK events each week and more in the runs that have sprung up around the world.

What’s really interesting about parkruns are the audience they attract. Whilst they are a natural hangout for club runners, parkruns also appeal to a population who are new to running and mainly interested in trying to improve their health. Studies have shown that less than half of parkrunners were regular runners before they registered, many are middle-aged and overweight, and the vast majority of them reported better health, weight control and mental well-being as a result.

parkrun is a great example of a grassroots organisation that, whether intended or not, is having a positive impact on the nation’s health. There’s no threats, penalties or negativity. Just a simple, positive message: “weekly, free, 5km, for everyone, forever”.

Ask Alison at 9.35am last Saturday morning ‘How are you?’ and she’d probably have said ‘knackered’. However, through parkrun, she is a bit fitter, healthier and happier as a result. It’s a simple message Public Health England would do well to learn.

This article was first published in CorpComms Magazine, April 2016.