By Hollie Webb, Senior Health Marketing Manager, Cancer Research UK

Published: 12 July 2018

When we embarked on a long-term marketing programme to support our policy and campaigning work to tackle the UK’s growing obesity issue, we were under no illusion that the campaign would attract only positive attention.

After smoking, obesity is the biggest preventable cause of cancer in the UK contributing to 22,800 cases of cancer every year. With over 6 in 10 UK adults currently overweight or obese, and 1 in 5 children leaving primary school obese, this is a growing risk. Despite this, only 15% of the UK were aware of the link between obesity and cancer when surveyed in 2017.

We knew this was something we needed to change if we were going to start to turn this story around. However, we were acutely aware that talking about weight is not an easy conversation to have. Here are 4 things that we did to put us in the best position to be able to manage public response to the campaign:

  1. Get to know your audience

This was the first time we had communicated an obesity message to the public so it was important that we started to understand weight from real people’s perspectives. We talked to over 80 people of a range of weights and included people who had experience of cancer. This research revealed many complexities when it comes to people’s relationships with their own weights, yet the role of Cancer Research UK came through really strongly: to inform with clear and factual communications.

  1. Assess the risk

We made sure we were going into this campaign with our eyes wide open, which meant getting into the nitty-gritty of what risk meant. We worked through what a complaint to the Advertising Standards Agency would mean, and what they would be looking out for. This resulted in us tweaking the poster wording from ‘Obesity causes cancer’ to ‘Obesity is a cause of cancer’ to ensure we were not misleading people into thinking if they were overweight they would definitely get cancer. The 25 complaints that the ASA did receive for this campaign, were not investigated further.

Defining what risk in terms of a social media backlash would look like was a bit harder. We researched the body positive movement, as we knew that this group of influencers were likely to be most critical, and also looked into examples of how the media have reacted to similar situations in the past. This meant we could make sure senior stakeholders were fully aware of these risks, which gave them confidence, and made decision making easier.

  1. Prepare for ALL eventualities

You can never be too prepared is a motto I like to live by, and it really came into play when planning this campaign. We knew that telling people obesity can increase your risk of cancer would raise questions so we made sure we had prepared responses to all of these, and created short ‘talking head’ videos answering the most common ones. We also made sure all staff were well briefed on the campaign, from shop staff to our supporter services helpline so that all staff felt confident talking about the campaign and why we were running it.

  1. Keep your perspective and don’t panic!

When Twitter blew-up and our supporter service call centre started receiving more calls than usual it would have been easy to panic and think we had done the wrong thing, so it was important to stick to our guns. For every negative comment on Twitter there were multiple positive comments in reply, and ultimately Twitter is not representative of the wider world. Despite how it was being portrayed by the media, the fact that people were engaged enough to debate the issue was a great outcome.

Campaign impact

So now the results are in and we can see the impact the campaign has had. We have seen the percentage of people who spontaneously recalled overweight/obesity as a risk factor for cancer increase from 17% before the campaign, to 43% after the campaign - that’s a 26% point increase in awareness. The results have also confirmed that the campaign had support from the majority of the UK public surveyed:  84% agreed is an important message, and 51% agreed it will encourage change for good. In comparison, only 8% of people felt that the campaign was offensive, which reflects the comments we saw on social media. Importantly we also saw a significant increase in people who agreed that in terms of cancer prevention, it is equally important to tackle obesity as it is to tackle smoking; suggesting that the more informed people become about the health risks associated with obesity, the more they agree more action is needed; which will hopefully lead to change.

So, in our case all publicity, has been good!