Rebranding health and fitness for a new generation

As brands adopt new ways of representing health and fitness, semiotics specialist Julius Colwyn reflects on how health and hedonism converged, and why Gen Z is partly – but not wholly – responsible

It’s not so long ago that fatphobia, misogyny and objectification were explicit fixtures of popular culture. A time of overbearing paparazzi, toxic language and grainy shots of perfectly normal cellulite blown up on magazine covers, many have reflected on the media and entertainment landscape in the early 21st century, prompted in part by recent documentaries illuminating the predatory behaviour of the press. Though largely a media issue, this climate played into the hands of health and fitness brands who, inadvertently or not, were able to shift products and programmes off the back of the fear garnered by those tabloids. The ramifications were felt for any gender, but women undoubtedly bore the brunt.

This culture seemed to run its course in the 2010s, when social media returned some agency to papped celebrities, and invasive reality TV programmes like Extreme Makeover became increasingly rare. Those changes gradually began to manifest in the advertising industry too, but as far as the UK is concerned, one campaign in particular from 2015 seemed to be the final straw.

‘Are You Beach Body Ready?’, the infamous ad from Protein World demanded in blocky capitals, the pressure heaped on by a bikini-clad model at the centre of the image. The advert, which was promoting a line of weight loss products, instantly caused a storm. Over 40,000 people petitioned to remove it from circulation, the ASA received hundreds of complaints (a later investigation found there was minimal harm) and it sparked retaliatory spoofs from individuals and brands alike. Plus, the same year Protein World was heckling us about our physique, Sport England was lowering the barrier to entry for exercise with its refreshing and still influential This Girl Can campaign. A sea change was coming.

Julius Colwyn, associate director of cultural and creative consultancy Space Doctors, believes we have come out the other side of those highly pressured, image-centric advertisements into a landscape that favours feeling over results. Health is increasingly becoming a case of focusing on the process – and ideally enjoying it at the same time.