Journal of Medical Ethics:medethics-2020-106192 (forthcoming)

In 2018 and 2019 Cancer Research UK launched a controversial advertising campaign to inform the British public of obesity being a preventable cause of cancer. On each occasion the advertisements used were emotive and provoked frustration among the British public which was widely vocalised on social media. As well serving to educate the public of this association, the advertisements also had the secondary effect of acting as health promotion through social marketing, a form of advertising designed to influence behavioural changes. As CRUK delivered a public health message through its campaign, the advertisements should be held according to the ethical principles which underpin healthcare in the UK. This article evaluates whether the advertisements used by CRUK in 2018 and 2019 fulfilled the ethical principles of beneficence, autonomy, non-maleficence and justice. It is found that while providing an important message, the oversimplification of obesity as being the result of personal decisions ignored the complex aetiology and served to stigmatise the target demographic, potentially disengaging them from the message. Additionally, posting cancer as the consequence of obesity invokes feelings of fear due to its connotations of suffering and premature death. Based on available evidence, the use of fear in social marketing does not create sustained behavioural change. This essay recommends that CRUK discontinue its use of such strategies in its future social marketing endeavours.
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DOI 10.1136/medethics-2020-106192
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