Article Text

Download PDFPDF
Cancer Research UK’S obesity campaign in 2018 and 2019: effective health promotion or perpetuating the stigmatisation of obesity?
  1. Natasha Varshney
  1. Liverpool School of Medicine, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, UK
  1. Correspondence to Natasha Varshney, University of Liverpool, Liverpool L69 3BX, UK; hlnvarsh{at}


In 2018 and 2019 Cancer Research UK (CRUK) 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.

  • health promotion
  • political philosophy
  • psychology
  • autonomy

Statistics from


  • Contributors The primary author is the sole contributor to this work.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement Data sharing is not applicable as no data sets were generated and/or analysed for this study. All data relevant to the study are included in the article or uploaded as supplementary information. All data are available via PubMed. The health intervention ladder produced by the Nuffield Council of Bioethics is available for use via the publications section at

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.