100 years of public health marketing

Public Health England has launched a new online exhibition celebrating 100 years of Public Health Marketing, offering a fascinating insight into how the way we communicate about health has changed since the launch of the Ministry of Information during World War I.


The exhibition breaks down a century of campaigns into five key eras, titled Fighting Fit, War to Welfare, Age of Aspiration, Age of Fear and Age of Participation.


We can’t think of a client in the medical profession today who would recommend smoking as being beneficial to your health, and yet during the First World War there was a campaign to send supplies to the front line for this very reason. Indeed, some of the campaigns seem laughable today in the face of contrary medical evidence, but they do offer a unique perspective on how attitudes in society have changed over the years – and also some interesting examples of how they haven’t.


Here, for example, is an example of a campaign from the 1960s advocating weight loss for health reasons. On first glance the modern observer might giggle at the ridiculously sexist strap line, before realising that this kind of before/after photo is exactly what we’ve become accustomed to seeing on Instagram accompanied by hashtags such as #eatclean or #fitspo. In that sense, we really haven’t come that far at all in the last 50 years – the difference being that nowadays the public is intrinsic in generating this kind of material as well.


Which brings us to the most recent campaigns, aptly collated under the neat heading of the ‘Age of Participation’. While the 80s and 90s were about hard-hitting shock tactics, today’s campaigns focus more on fostering two-way communication with the public, with more personalised support available all year round. Digital tools play an important part in health communications today, offering support and advice as well as information.


So where is it all heading? Perhaps to more technological advances that can provide treatment solutions as well as raising awareness.


Speaking to Campaign magazine, Sheila Mitchell, marketing director of PHE said, “We’re like the rest of the marketing industry – we need to ask where is the technology taking us, and how is that relevant to getting people health advice?


“What we’ll do in the marketing team is develop different products and services. And then we have a suite of tools and assets and then question is how do you take these deeper into the health service?”


With this in mind, in 100 years’ time when they come to look back on today, could we find ourselves filed under the title of ‘The Age of Automation’? That remains to be seen…