Why Boris Johnson's new anti-obesity strategy makes me reach for the chocolate

Rachel Cooke
·4-min read

As I understand it, simple soul that I am, advertising is supposed to be immediate. The idea is for people to know pretty quickly what it is that they’re being sold: a car that will make them feel powerful; a shampoo that will turn heads in the street; a sauce that will induce their family to love them extravagantly. So when I first clapped eyes on one of the newspaper ads promoting the government’s new obesity strategy I was confused. What, exactly, was it selling me? Its various slogans, which come with a strong whiff of the weaselly language of self-help, spoke of “better health” and the “little changes” that can boost weight loss. But the image told a different story, one that seemed to me mostly to have something to do with reminding people it might soon be lunchtime.

The ad in question stars a bearded, overweight man with grey hair and a purple T-shirt. “THIS IS MY NEW THING,” it says next to his right ear, a phrase that might seem a bit kinky in another context. Interest piqued – well, vaguely – you then set to wondering what it is that he finds so very exciting and fresh. And the answer is … yes, it’s a sandwich he’s holding tightly in his hands, lips open to receive it even as he smiles for the camera. Putting on my reading glasses, I tried to work out what, if anything, might be special about this particular sandwich. But after some serious analysis, I could only conclude: not very much. It’s a pitta, stuffed with something white (cheese? Chicken?) and a few bits of green.

Both M&C Saatchi, the agency responsible for this effort, and those in government who signed it off, appear to have ignored one blindingly obvious fact here, which is that human beings are highly suggestible, and seeing other people eat generally makes them want to eat, too.

This strikes me as a bit of a negative in the circumstances. Also, if a sandwich this size – it’s really quite big – is this guy’s new thing, what was his old thing? An entire loaf? Or maybe he just used to go for a nice, fat cheeseburger – an item which, of course, he can now buy 50% more cheaply, thanks to the chancellor’s “eat out to help out” subsidy. Talk about mixed messaging.

But then, the relative costs of food – a couple of quid here or there – play no part in this weird realm. In another of the ads, a man in a hi-vis jacket spoons fruit salad in the direction of his mouth. Said salad – a hearty portion, I’d say, and I’m greedy – comes, Starbucks-style, in a domed, plastic container. These people clearly don’t know how disproportionately (and thus, prohibitively) expensive pre-chopped fruit is, else they would surely have had him peel a banana instead.

“LET’S DO THIS,” urge the ads, with an energy the images themselves notably lack (even the ones that show people exercising). As it happens, I’m quite into “doing it” – if, by this, they mean losing some weight. Like many people, I gained a few pounds during lockdown, my daily walks powerless in the face of the fact that, stuck indoors, I was eating more than normal. But an ad like this isn’t worth a single mung bean – to me, or anyone else. Cigarettes come with terrifying warnings of cancer, but not all of these ads care to mention explicitly the fact that the greater one’s body mass, the more at risk one is of serious illness or death from Covid-19 (they send you, if you read the small print, to a website for information on this score).

How patronising they are, with their suggestion that if only a person ate more fruit – just a “little swap” – they would “get healthy”. If only it were this easy. If only people across the country weren’t struggling to feed their families at all. How much, I wonder, is this campaign costing? (£10m, I’ve read.) At least Rishi Sunak’s taxpayer-funded discounts may save jobs. This will likely achieve nothing at all, save for to stir a certain black mirth in anyone who ponders them for more than a minute. “THIS IS MY NEW THING!” I’ve taken to announcing, as I help myself to a second bowl of pasta. “LET’S DO THIS!” I shout to no one in particular, as I peel the silver wrapper from yet another orange Club.