From STD cakes to campaigning for ‘real’ beauty — why brand is key in de-stigmatising health-taboos

Striking the right tone and listening to consumers can see communications help change the health industry for the better. Managing Director Rachel Cook recently spoke to CreativeBrief to explain more.


Over the years, brand campaigns have employed a plethora of measures to stoke much-needed discourse around everything from body parts to health conditions that cause shame and embarrassment. We've witnessed STDs re-imagined in fondant and cake form; the campaign for ‘real’ beauty manifested in photoshoots championing all body shapes, and the CEO of a sanitary towel company guzzling the blue liquor strangely used to demonstrate product absorbency.

Whether FGM or incontinence, erectile dysfunction or even death - brand communications is playing a key role in helping to both humanise and break down the boundaries to discuss the taboo, enabling more open reflections that promote better health - and it’s about time.

So how can the right visual tools and narrative destigmatise health-related taboos? With these five tips, you’ll have a campaign that strikes the right balance between the impactful, the engaging and the informative.

Avoid tokenism and shock tactics

The whole point of neutralising taboos is to make it relatable, genuine and palatable. Extreme shock tactics can be divisive and alienating; there is an art to finding the balance between what people are comfortable with, whilst still igniting healthy conversations and striking the right level of engagement around a difficult topic.

Push as close to the line as you can without causing off-tone offence, stigmatising or othering (whether you mean to do so or not); challenge is important but ultimately you want the campaign to spread and respect is paramount. Using provocative imagery and language is a sure-fire way of attracting attention - you just need to be able to confidently justify why you’re taking the approach you’ve used - and be prepared to stand up to criticism.

We worked with Brook, the UK’s leading sexual health charity, and healthcare brand Canesten to create Love Your Vulva, a web app designed to educate people with vaginas aged 16-24 about their vulvas. To normalise the dialogue around vulvas, we developed a series of short educational quizzes and activities to get the conversation going. We distilled the breadth of information Brook has into four sections: knowing your vulva, dealing with personal perceptions of your vulva, maintaining vulva health, and finally inviting users to create their own vulva. To strike the balance between playful and informative, we partnered with a female illustrator to create fun and accessible, yet clinically accurate depictions of vulvas, which helped show that they come in every shape, size and colour.

Social dialogue around vulva health and body image should be something everyone feels comfortable taking part in. Just prior to making the Love Your Vulva platform, statistics around people’s perceptions of the appearance of their vagina showed 48% had concerns about their vulva, with the main issue being the size (64% of respondents stated they were worried about the size and shape of their vulva). There was clear room for the conversation to be had, but doing it in a way that didn’t scare people off meant our work had a strong purpose and could withstand any scrutiny around why such a campaign was needed in the first place.

Mind your language - use humour in the right way

The power of language and tone of voice is crucial to a good campaign, but health campaigns tend to lean with towards super comical or super clinical – while hitting it somewhere in between can be a good way to balance consumer/patient confidence with accessibility of the subject matter. Poking fun isn’t the aim, but using natural and cheeky language can challenge awkwardness and give a ‘way in’ to what can be difficult conversations.

Earlier this year, men’s health platform Numan launched a purposefully provocative campaign to get men talking about erectile dysfunction. It’s a topic that few will willingly raise their hands to talk about. But being a health issue with viable medication and treatment, it’s an important issue to discuss. Numan chose to address this with Call It What You Want. The campaign features a series of images and matching words as a comical allusion to what is ‘the elephant in the room’. A pistol (toy gun) or pecker (cockerel) features alongside the simple message, “Fix yours”.

Through colloquial language and bold images, the campaign shows how the right amount of levity can help elevate your message by getting the conversation started.

Do your homework

Get to know your audience first-hand. Bringing in experts and people with lived experience is the only way to make sure your creative solution is right, and will stop you getting swept up trying to appeal to the masses.

When we created our campaign for the NHS’ Blossom Clinic, a service provider offering clinical and wellbeing support for survivors of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), we actively engaged with community members, including women who’d survived FGM.

This first-hand experience helped our understanding of the topic, and informed the language and images we used. When it came to creating leaflets and OOH material that communicated the services Blossom Clinic provides, we included several different languages to ensure we reached as many people as possible. We then combined this with portrait photography of survivors, collaborating with photographer Ejatu Shaw, someone who has previously explored cultural identity within communities where FGM is practiced.

Through engaging with community members we were able to involve lived experience in the campaign and test the boundaries of where we could go with the brief with the people it really mattered with, which was essential in helping us to strike the right balance of sensitivity and challenge.

Image credit LADBible
Text on yellow background that reads: U OK M8?

Engage with the issue, but offer a solution

Health advertising often falls short because it incites people’s worst fears rather than providing clear solutions.

As of 2013 all cigarette packages in the UK were required to include graphic warning labels that show the detrimental health effects of smoking. These images often included diseased lungs, decaying teeth and the effects of clogged arteries on feet. Yet rather than turning off customers, as was the intention, research from UCLA’s psychology department showed that these tactics could instead provoke “defensive responses” - the opposite of what is needed in effective behaviour change campaigns.

Staying close to the latest issues affecting the public mood and coming up with timely solutions is key to moving consumers/patients in the right way.

TheLADible Groups’ three-month campaign, ‘UOKM8?’, is a great example of reading the room. It responded to statistics showing that suicide is the biggest killer of British men under 45, and its own audience poll that revealed 37% of respondents had considered ending their own life. The campaign featured films and stories designed to encourage conversations among young men around their own wellbeing. Via their partnership with several charities including Mind and CALM, the campaign also went on to provide real support that could be accessed immediately - a much smarter result.

Rome wasn’t built in a day

Don’t expect the tone or conversation to shift immediately. Take it at a reasonable pace, get people comfortable with the uncomfortable, and remember that real cultural change is delivered by a critical mass of opinion shifting, and sometimes that takes longer than we might like.

The Dove ProAge campaign received harsh backlash when it first launched in 2007. Rebelling against the anti-aging products at the time, the campaign wanted to encourage people to feel confident in their skin, featuring tasteful nude photography of older women next to captions such as “too old to be in an anti-aging ad. But this isn’t anti-age, this is pro-age”. In 2007, the ad was banned from television by the FCC in America for showing ‘too much skin’ – something that was, naturally, picked apart by consumers arguing that contemporary pop culture celebrated and encouraged the sexualisation of female bodies.

Today, the campaign is remembered by brands and brand consultants alike as being one of the most successful campaigns to break down taboos. It paved the way for fairer representation of the female body. And it’s a great example of how these conversations need to start somewhere, and that sometimes - and often frustratingly – it can take time and critical mass before the conversation catches up. Don’t stop, don’t be disheartened, but trust that time and repeated effort will deliver change.

As creatives, it’s our role to give brands the power to shift conversation, to reduce shame and encourage open conversation. Get the tone, language, visuals and intention balanced, and you’ll have a genuinely impactful campaign that can really change health and wellbeing for the better.

More views

All views

FUEL: Colour correction, listen up, take the test


Welcome to ThreeTenSeven: James Wemyss


Autism in the workplace

0113 232 9222
The Old Stables
Springwood Gardens
Certified B Corporation
Certified B Corporation
The Old Stables
Springwood Gardens
0113 232 9222
Certified B Corporation