How Uncommon got Britain Talking About The Difficult Stuff with ITV
A tough pandemic morphed into a cost of living crisis, that was catalysed by the bloodiest war in Europe’s recent history. Add that to harmful social media use, which has become a ubiquitous part of daily lives, and it’s not hard to diagnose why mental health is spiralling.
The issue is becoming particularly bad among young people. Almost half struggle with anxiety and more than 400,000 children and young people are being treated for mental health problems each month - the highest number on record.
Thankfully, mental health campaigning has come a long way in a short flurry of time. It was only 2007 when Britney Spears’ face was plastered across every magazine stall, alongside insensitive headlines like “insane” and “shear madness”, poking fun at the pop star's mental state, when she experienced a very public meltdown. Not many batted an eyelid.
Fast forward a few critical years, and people feel less hushed, conversations are more profound and, sorry The Cure, but boys do cry.
“Three years go, when we started talking about mental wellbeing, other than Public Health England, there wasn’t much else,” Susie Braun, director of social purpose at ITV, explains. “Now, because of the pandemic, we’re all more comfortable talking about mental health.”
Mere months before Covid-19 drifted us all apart, somewhat fortuitously, ITV and its creative agency Uncommon took on the task of getting Britain to talk, after extensive research identified mental health should be the social cause it should be known for.
Rather than tackling the issue at crisis point, like a lot of mental health campaigning, ITV wanted to pull things back a little. “Our consultations with our charity partners showed that there is a spectrum of mental health,” Braun recalls.
“At the time, there wasn’t much for people who were just struggling or ways to proactively look after our mental health. No recourse about immediate information and less understanding of the idea of mental well-being.”
Like other terrestrial channels, ITV sits at home with the UK public throughout every gluttonous Christmas Day, through intoxicating sports events or binge-able reality shows, or it just invites us to enjoy our mornings with Lorraine.
When imploring the nation to check-in with one another, the home is a good place to start, especially when we were confined to it during the UK’s many lockdowns.
“You’d be amazed how many clients, regardless of their category, don’t feel responsible for their breadth and their impact. If you have 165 stores, you can reach hundreds and millions of people,” Nils Leonard, co-founder of Uncommon, explains.
“ITV is aware of its scale. This whole idea was about recognising its place in the world and playing its part.”
Brendan Dinen, head of brand marketing, elaborates on ITV’s positioning as a brand: “ITV is tapped into culture or the mood of the nation, just things that affect all of us. It's what makes ITV have a connection with its audiences.
“We’ve always felt we have a platform that shouldn’t just reflect our culture in the UK.
“We have an opportunity to impact culture. Mental well-being is one of the biggest challenges facing our country. Therefore, as a brand, we have an authentic opportunity to make a difference there. That’s why it’s such a fit.”
Disruption at home has played a huge role in ITV and Uncommon’s strategy. “Britain get talking” arrived with a bang back in October 2019, when long-serving Britain’s Got Talent hosts, Ant and Dec, halted live television, urging people to “tune back into the story in your living room”.
“When we launched it, to try and make a statement and drive awareness, you have to break the conventions of expectations,” Dinen recalls. “At that first moment, when Ant and Dec stood on stage and paused the show, we had a silent ad break to draw attention to the challenge. To capture attention and get conversations happening.
“The challenge of that is how do you continue to try and drive awareness? It’s not just about headline-grabbing moments, for us, disruption is a great tool in our arsenal. But it’s also about the message and the action.”
Since then, Ant and Dec have paused live TV on a number of occasions, imploring the nation to check in with each other, even on the simplest of things.
To just be a reassuring ear to someone’s woes, musings, or just general chitchat. On one episode of Saturday Night Takeaway, the presenters tried to interview Olympic athlete Sir Mo Farah awkwardly by text, with auto-correct and long typing pauses contrasting with the usual lively chatter of the show.
And they even took it to the streets. From bus stops to takeaway pizza boxes, back in May, they disrupted everyday places in London, the loneliest city in the UK, with digital voice notes, that encouraged others to send them, to help bear loneliness.
And, just last week, ITV News presenter Lucrezia Millarini, sports presenter Laura Woods and Emmerdale actress Daisy Campbell broke the fourth wall, to call on the nation to check in with young people.
But while the first disruption was groundbreaking, are ITV and Uncommon conscious of repeating the same form of attack? “We feel the pressure of that,” Leonard admits. “If your first bit of work is stopping national television, it’s hard to fucking innovate and be as disruptive as that, every time.
“Our brief at Uncommon is: never have the same month twice. How do we do something good, and beat it?”
Once the domain of landlines, communication in 2022 is multifaceted. Do you catch up with friends over voice notes, or do you react to Instagram stories?
Throughout "Britain get talking", ITV and Uncommon have presented various ways people in the modern world connect with each other.
“Calm and Mind are across the changing nature of how we communicate today,” Leonard explains. “The truth is, there is no bad communication: there is just no communication.
“What's interesting is we've used print a lot, which is a non-digital format. The temptation is to make print work that doesn't look like an advert.
“The only way you're going to reach people is to make them believe they're not being advertised to. Our strategy is: the funniest, oddest or most artful way is always going to be more interesting than an ad that tells someone to call a helpline.”
Playing around with how we communicate, ITV recently explored the gap between what we say and how we feel. It addressed the fact that even though young people are carrying a lot on their shoulders, they often struggle to talk about it.
The powerful film shows the interaction between a parent and their child after a rough day at school, using subtitles to reveal how they both really feel as opposed to what they say to one another, reminding the audience of how difficult it can be to open up.
While ITV has utilised its broadcaster position to great effect, it isn't without its headaches.
A bunch of idealised bodies battling it out in the stadium of love? No, this isn’t a Greek tragedy, it’s ITV’s rebooted reality show Love Island.
While it is extremely popular around the world, the show has also attracted viewer complaints of all stripes, including allegations of racism, sexism, ageism and fatphobia.
Beyond complaints, four people linked to the show have been lost to suicide, including its former host, Caroline Flack.
While the show has grown up a lot, some critics argue the latest series struck a more unpleasant tone. It prompted thousands of Ofcom complaints over concerns of bullying and toxic male behaviour.
What does ITV say to critics that might question its right to tackle mental health, when it promotes the likes of Love Island?
“We take mental health really seriously, whether it’s got our audiences, the people that make our show, or those that appear in our shows,” Braun insists.
“One of the things that you’ve seen in this series and the press around it is a huge amount of care taken for each participant, not just during the show, but in the screening and after. There’s a red thread throughout which is how we actively looking after wellbeing, whatever part they play in the ITV family.”
Leonard notes that Love Island is an “ongoing experiment”, which has learnt a lot over the years, including its sustainably-led partnership with pre-loved fashion partner, eBay, after years with fast fashion sponsors.
“A show like Love Island has moved on a lot. The critique it receives could be levelled at anybody having concerns around mental health, which is, should you put out anything that is challenging?” Leonard questions.
“There are some healthy behaviours in there that no one is really happy to talk about. ‘Can we have a chat?’ is a common narrative. There are conversations that come up that are subject matters of our time.”
Indeed, one of the most poignant moments in this series occurred during a conversation between two male contestants. “You don’t need to be afraid to show emotion and be upset,” said one, as the other cried on the show. This shouldn’t be groundbreaking, but it is.
Taking measurable action is central to the whole “Britain get talking” strategy. With research indicating Britons have had 100 million new or more meaningful conversations as a result of the landmark campaign, the success of the campaign has led them to keep moving goalposts, with an ultimate goal of encouraging the UK public to take 200 million actions by 2023.
“The work we do, in shaping culture for good or net zero ambitions for ITV’s operations, it’s not just about responsibility. We want it to have purpose and be goal orientated,” Braun explains.
“To be just as accountable as every other part of ITV. It’s important because it focuses the mind. It helps when it comes to writing and evaluating briefs, it shows the extent of our ambition. We’re careful about how we measure it.”
For now, ITV is heading towards that goal of 200 million people taking action to support their mental and physical health by 2023. Beyond that, Braun says it’s impossible to say where the path will take them, admitting: “It’s quite hard to predict how the nation might be feeling in six months' time. There might be another strain, which really changes the way we live our daily lives. That and how the cost of living crisis plays out.”
At this point she refers to a quote from McDonald’s owner when asked what it would be selling in 50 years' time - “I don’t know what we’ll be selling, but we’ll be selling more of it than anyone else.”
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