What is framing

Framing an issue effectively means doing things a little differently to standard awareness raising or campaigning.

To frame an issue we need to:

  1. Know what we’re communicating into by understanding how people think and feel about this issue.
  2. Make deliberate choices when presenting information: what to emphasise, what to explain and what to leave unsaid.
  3. Trigger certain ways of thinking and bypass others – it’s very hard to argue against a feeling or belief once it’s activated.
  4. Show why it matters by aligning solutions with people’s ideals of what’s desirable and good.
  5. Show that change is possible, not that problems are huge and challenging.
  6. Give your audience ways to think differently instead of meeting them where they are.

Why we need it

People often make assumptions that make it harder to understand how childhood obesity happens, and how it can be ended.


  • Self-makingness: the idea that childhood obesity happens because parents make bad decisions and lack willpower – and is a sign of personal failure

  • Othering: the belief that childhood obesity happens to other people, in other places

  • Education as the only answer: people think that parents and teenagers need to be educated to make better health choices

  • Fatalism: obesity is seen as a crisis of modern life and an impending threat to our NHS

Here’s what the British public thinks about childhood obesity:

Read more about our research methodology and findings here

Key communication principles

  1. Childhood obesity is a serious and growing crisis in our country – it must be tackled.

    We must put our children’s health first – and act now to improve child health and wellbeing.

  2. Children living in this area are twice as likely to be obese.

    Every child deserves the opportunity to be healthy, no matter where they live.

  3. Caregivers and parents need to start making healthy choices for their children.

    Families are up against a flood of unhealthy food; pouring out from high streets, supermarket shelves, and our school canteens. We need to close the floodgates.

  4. Pester power is a genuine problem for busy parents. Children are drawn to sweets and it’s hard for parents to keep making healthy choices for their kids.

    With junk food in the spotlight – through TV ads and online content – it’s no wonder unhealthy foods play a starring role in children’s minds.

  5. I really struggle to keep my children fit and active. Every holiday the kids are sat in front of their screens – but I don’t know where else they could go.

    In my area, the healthy options just aren’t there. Our local playground was sold off a few years ago, we don’t have public spaces or a park, and the roads are dangerous. There’s nowhere for my – or anyone’s – kids to explore and play safely outside.

  6. In 2017/18, 9.5% of children aged 4-5 years were found to be obese, while one in five (20.1%) of those in Year 6 were obese. The prevalence of obesity in both age groups rose from 2016/17.

    We need to improve children’s health and wellbeing. An average of six ten year olds in a classroom of 30 is categorised as obese. We all need to ensure that our neighbourhoods provide affordable, healthy food options and places where children can run and play.

  7. This is a national crisis. Soaring rates of obesity, a major risk factor for many serious health problems like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer could potentially bankrupt our NHS.

    We must put our children’s health first – and act now to stem the tide of unhealthy food that’s flooding our streets, schools and shops. Childhood obesity has become a national emergency – but one that, as a society, we can tackle.

  8. Children’s health is all-important. We need to make sure that all young people have opportunities to be healthy, no matter where they live. This means secure access to healthy food, and safe places to grow, explore and play. This means stemming the tide of unhealthy food, in our schools and in our high streets. This means putting our children’s health first.

When talking about childhood obesity

Avoid Do

Leading with childhood obesity

Start with children’s health and how we can and must improve it

Talking about the costs of obesity – or the strain obesity places on public resources like the NHS

Remind people that we should meet all children’s needs, no matter where they live

Reinforcing the belief that parents are to blame for children’s ill health

Explain how what surrounds us shapes our opportunities to be healthy, using the rivers metaphor

Normalising the idea that children naturally prefer unhealthy food

Explain how tastes are engineered through advertising, using the stage metaphor

Leading with complicated statistics or data

Selecting and properly explaining data

Focusing solely on the scale of the childhood obesity crisis

Show how change is not only necessary but possible and within our reach

Focusing on individual-level solutions, like cooking lessons or joining a gym

Tell a positive, consistent story about the changes to our surroundings that can improve all children’s health

Make this about health

We can have different kinds of conversations if we talk about improving children’s health first.

This issue frame avoids activating blame and judgement of individual parents.


With a story about the potential to create and improve health – rather than just tackle poor health – we activate and inspire support for solutions.

Not like this:

We need to tackle rising childhood obesity by decreasing the consumption of unhealthy foods and increasing children’s physical activity.

Like this:

We all need to improve the health of our children by making sure that every child can get affordable, healthy food and has opportunities to explore and play.

Here’s what this could look like in practice:

Use the fair places value

We can use values frames to state powerful, unarguable truths about our world. To state that we all believe that the places we live should meet our children’s needs. And to establish our common grounds for action – without lecturing, othering, or talking down.


When we frame children’s health as an issue that matters to all of us, we help our audiences to see how they have a role in creating change.

Use an inclusive ‘we’ – one that refers to everyone, not just your organisation or a specific group – to activate people’s sense of collective agency.

Use the value of fair places to remind people that the places we live shouldn’t restrict young people’s opportunities to be healthy

To use this values frame:

  • Focus on the characteristics of places and environments (not people) – and how these characteristics need to change
  • Evoke people’s sense of fairness around access to opportunities
  • Remind people that children should have a fair chance to thrive and be healthy, no matter where they live.

Not like this:

“It’s not fair that children and families find it hard to choose healthy lifestyles. Especially ones involved in a day-to-day financial struggle. We all need to make sure that the healthy choice is also the easiest one for families.”

Like this:

“All children should be treated fairly and have the same chances to thrive and be healthy, no matter where they live. Many families do not have access to the things children need to be healthy. We all need to make sure that our neighbourhoods provide affordable, healthy food options and places where children can run, explore and play.”

Here’s what this could look like in practice:

Use the right metaphor

We can use metaphor to explain how context shapes children’s health in straightforward, concrete ways. Metaphor bring abstract concepts to life without dumbing down.


When we use metaphor to explain – and not just assert – why something happens, we increase people’s understanding of and support for solutions.


Talk about options – not choices – to focus on our surroundings.

Use the rivers to explain how unhealthy food dominates our food environment.

To use this metaphor, call to mind external factors within a system that:

  • Is made of different elements that are not balanced
  • Is acting on our environment in ways that cause harm to families
  • If left unchecked, could cause even more harm
  • Can be mitigated upstream with the right action.

Not like this:

“Families are drowning in a tidal wave of unhealthy food. And in its aftermath, it’s impossible for parents and caregivers to make much-needed healthy choices for their children.”

Like this:

“We can improve all children’s health in the UK by working upstream to improve the flow of affordable, healthy food options and opportunities to run and play. Right now, the floodgates of unhealthy food options are open wide, and these options are overwhelming children and families.”

Here’s what this could look like in practice:

Use the stage metaphor to explain the influence of advertising on children’s tastes.

To use this metaphor, explicitly position children as the viewers of ad content that:

  • Influences in ways that are artificial and intentional
  • Acts without parental mediation
  • Could prioritise healthier options if different choices were made.

Not like this:

“Pester power puts parents and caregivers in an impossible position. Kids are naturally drawn to high-sugar, high-fat food in bright, shiny packaging – and pestering in stores shines a light on these products for parents.”

Like this:

“Unhealthy food options are in the spotlight. Aggressive advertising aimed at children and fun promotions in supermarkets cast unhealthy options in a starring role in young people’s minds. Healthier food options get lost in the background or are pushed entirely offstage. We need to set the stage for good health for all children.”

Here’s what this could look like in practice:

Put stories in context

We can add context to individual stories to show how surroundings help or harm our ability to be healthy. To make sure that our stories aren’t dismissed as the result of bad choices. And to explain why ending childhood obesity requires us to fix social systems and conditions – not people.

Not like this:

“It’s a real struggle for me to keep my family healthy nowadays. It’s hard to find healthy food at my local store, and I have to pick what works with our lifestyles – which usually means quick, cheap and filling. I do try to choose low-fat, low-sugar things where I can. And I know we all need to cut down on our takeaway treats – but they’re right there, every time I walk home from work!”

Like this:

“Like a lot of families in my neighbourhood, it can be a struggle to put healthy food on the table. The nearest big supermarket is two bus rides away. I work long hours, and look after my mum and my two boys. Compare that to the high street – there’s a flood of fast food places, and takeaways with gigantic portions everywhere you look. Fast food is cheap, it’s filling, and I can pick some up on my way home. Everyone is finding it harder to be healthy here – the healthy options just aren’t there.”

A few phrases that bring in context:

Like a lot of [working parents / people in [city] / etc], I…This support system should be for everyone who needs it[Problem] is widespread
So many parents in this community are affected by [x]…restricted my optionsWe shouldn’t be up against a tide of unhealthy food
…cut down on my / our optionsWe can all act to make sure this doesn’t happen againNot everyone in [location] has access to this support
I have support from [x]This affects / affected more than just me and my childrenI didn’t have any options
In [location], it’s harder for young people to be healthyIn my community…My options were taken away / given back when…

Put stats in context

Stats don’t speak for themselves. We can help people make sense of facts and figures by putting them in context; with values, metaphor and systems stories.

Without this context, data is often interpreted in predictable ways – and to confirm people’s existing beliefs.

Use data only to support – or bridge to – your existing content

Like this:

“Improving children’s health matters to all of us. Right now, an average of six ten years olds in a classroom of 30 has obesity. Families are up against a flood of unhealthy food options. We all need to ensure that all our neighbourhoods provide affordable, healthy food options and places where children can run and play.”


Place numbers in a social context that provides meaning – like a classroom, or playground. This brings them to life and keeps our focus on the environment. Where possible, use figures to highlight barriers (or opportunities) within our environment – like the number of public park closures or changing portion sizes.

Talk about what’s possible

Childhood obesity can seem like a problem too overwhelming to be solved. We can combat fatalism by talking about the things we can do to improve children’s health – and explaining how these solutions work.

Not like this:

“We need to act now to combat the child health emergency in the UK. There’s a tidal wave of unhealthy food options and families are drowning. Our society is already damaged – and it will be irreparably damaged for generations unless something changes.”

Like this:

“We need to act now to improve children’s health in the UK. The floodgates of unhealthy food options are open wide and our children don’t have enough healthy options and opportunities. Childhood obesity is a national emergency in the UK, but we can tackle this and help all children to be healthy with concrete steps that – if we work together – are within our reach.”


Use the 2:1 ratio – for every dose of urgency and crisis in our communications, we need to include at least two doses of “can-do”. This includes tone, as well as content.

Specific solutions are better than general ones – as long as they are proportionate to how we’ve explained the problem.

Harness power of repetition

The more people hear a frame, the more powerful it becomes.

Certain words and ideas work better than others when talking about childhood obesity. We need to keep using these words and ideas to tell a new story about improving children’s health – and avoid the ones that cause harm.

Instead of Try

Physical activity

Explore, run and play, get moving

Food environment

Options, barriers – and explain these using the rivers metaphor

Choices, lifestyles

Options, opportunities

Inequality/disparities in low income areas

The fair places value to bring these to life – e.g ‘It shouldn’t be harder for people in [area] to be healthy’

‘We need to take a public health approach to this issue’

‘This issue affects all of us – we all need opportunities to be healthy. By [doing specific action] we can…’

Preventative approach, moderation

Work upstream, balance the flow – and extend the rivers metaphor to give specific details

Encourage, inspire

Support, help, enable

Not enough physical activity/exercise

Not enough opportunities to exercise and be healthy