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Out-of-home can play a vital role in boosting awareness of healthy lifestyles. But focusing on the positive aspects of food consumption is key to avoiding controversy.

A growing awareness of the importance of a healthy lifestyle and eating well is changing the way many people approach their diet. Due to issues such as climate change, food sanitation scandals and increasing obesity in developed and developing economies, many consumers are looking for healthier options and are using brands as guides.

These new behaviours have made a swift impact online: the number of Instagram posts with the hashtag “healthyfood” reached more than 65 million in 2019; while the hashtag “healthy” has been included in over 145 million posts.
Healthy eating Instagram infographic

But the trend for promoting healthy lifestyles is not confined to the Internet. Advertising, specifically Out-of-Home (OOH) advertising, has a great impact on our food choices and consequently, the way we consume: 9 out of 10 shoppers have seen OOH advertising in the previous 30 minutes before shopping. For this reason, more and more brands are promoting the positive impact of their products and the benefits (“free-from”, diet programmes, organic, no added sugar) through OOH.

Genius, the famous gluten-free brand, ran a targeted campaign on JCDecaux UK’s Tesco screens in 2018. The campaign had an extremely positive impact, driving a sales uplift for Genius Triple Seeded Farmhouse bread of 14% during the campaign and 10% post-campaign.
Genius Tesco JCDecaux UK
Genius at Tesco, JCDecaux UK

Brands are not the only ones pushing a healthier lifestyle through OOH advertising; there have also been many prominent government and municipal initiatives around the world that aim to promote healthy eating. For example, New York City’s government ran a campaign encouraging residents to reduce their consumption of fizzy drinks, highlighting the range of serious health complications that can arise as a result of obesity.  

Similarly, in 2019 Transport for London (TfL) banned advertising for food and drink products that are high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS). As of February 2019, if restaurants, food or drink brands or delivery services want to advertise on TfL panels, they will have to promote their healthier products. This follows a similar ban in Amsterdam, where the total number of overweight children fell by 12% in the three years to 2015.
Zero-sugar Pepsi campaign, JCDecaux UK
Zero-sugar Pepsi campaign, JCDecaux UK

However, it would be unwise to assume that campaigns to promote healthier eating are clear cut. The way we eat is a highly personal and often emotive issue. Healthy eating initiatives should be sensitive to this, or risk causing offence and possibly detracting from the impact of their messages.

A campaign by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, featuring unhappy overweight-looking children and slogans such as “Chubby isn’t cute if it leads to type two diabetes”, was criticised by child health expert Alan Guttmacher as carrying “a great risk of increasing stigma”, potentially damaging children’s mental health. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta responded that “the most effective means are to use techniques that some might say are controversial”.

Even the striking Cancer Research UK healthy eating OOH campaign, with posters bearing the slogan “Ob_s__y is a cause of cancer too”, inviting viewers to fill in the blanks, was accused by some of fat shaming, which could lead to “misery and comfort eating”. Of course, the campaign attracted plenty of support too, with Tam Fry, spokesman for the National Obesity Forum charity, telling the BBC that the campaign was “absolutely right” to highlight the dangers of obesity.  
Some have even characterised obesity as a class issue, and have argued that potentially insensitive healthy eating campaigns risk stigmatising people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.
Cancer Research JCDecaux UK
Cancer Research, JCDecaux UK

Open, visible, available to all – OOH is an excellent platform for brands and public bodies to showcase their healthy-eating messaging. And while few could doubt their good intentions – is there anyone who doesn’t think we should strive to live more healthy lifestyles? – advertisers should be aware that campaigns that draw attention to the downsides of unhealthy eating, such as obesity and cancer, are likely to court controversy. Promoting the advantages of healthy food and an active lifestyle, on the other hand, is less likely to avoid such issues. 

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Published in For brands