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This is a plain English summary of an original research article. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) at the time of publication.

Mass media campaigns have demonstrated effectiveness for promoting tobacco control, physical activity and sexual health. Most of the evidence relates to improving awareness of health risks or the availability of services. However, for those aimed at the risks associated with sedentary lifestyles, smoking or sexual behaviours, there are signs that the campaigns also achieved positive changes to the target behaviour.

This large review, funded by NIHR, identified 36 systematic reviews and individual studies looking at the effect of mass media campaigns on six preventable risk factors. The review identified several research gaps. For example, few campaigns directed at drinking or eating behaviours showed positive changes. Only tobacco control campaigns have demonstrated cost-effectiveness, with limited research available on the others.

This broad review shows that a better understanding of the optimal delivery format is still needed, but media campaigns appear to be more effective when intense, long-running and well-targeted to a population group.

Why was this study needed?

The World Health Organization reports that non-infectious diseases account for 71% of global deaths (41 million) every year. In the UK they account for the majority. More than a third of deaths are due to cardiovascular disease, over a quarter from cancer and approaching one in five from respiratory disease. Modifiable health behaviours are the underlying cause for many. Smoking, alcohol and obesity are together estimated to cost the UK economy around £30 billion a year. Behaviour change is a vital step in improving public health and reducing the chronic disease burden.

Mass media campaigns can use various formats, such as digital, television, radio, social media, magazines and posters, to reach large numbers of people at relatively low cost. Prior research has looked at the effect of individual campaigns, such as smoking.

This multi-stage review took a broader view, gathering the evidence on the effect of media campaigns across multiple health behaviours, and aimed to find out how best to communicate public health messages through these media.

What did this study do?

The study involved four literature reviews. A ‘review of reviews’ identified systematic reviews assessing the effectiveness of mass media campaigns on six health topics: smoking, substance use, alcohol use, diet, physical activity and sexual health.

The researchers undertook two further systematic reviews of primary studies. One identified individual studies looking at the effect of media campaigns on alcohol consumption and related harms (due to the limited number of reviews already in this area). A second identified studies informing the campaign characteristics that were associated with effectiveness across the six topics. Finally, there was a review of cost-effectiveness studies.

The work was underpinned by a logic model developed with stakeholders to understand how the different interventions worked to effect change across the topics.

All literature was published after 2000. There was considerable variation between the study characteristics and results. The certainty of findings was low for all topics.

What did it find?

  • Thirty-six systematic reviews assessed the effectiveness of media campaigns, mostly smoking (12 reviews), sexual health (9) and physical activity (7 reviews).
    There was evidence that tobacco control campaigns increase the intention to quit smoking, but evidence was conflicting on whether this resulted in behaviour change.
    Media campaigns were shown to raise awareness around physical activity, with some evidence this may result in behaviour change such as reduced sedentary time, increased walking and use of stairs. However, it was uncertain whether they increase physical activity levels overall.
    Media campaigns generally had positive effects on sexual health, improving awareness and knowledge, increasing condom use and use of sexual health services. There was very limited evidence that media campaigns improve diet and reduce substance use.
  • There were no systematic reviews of alcohol campaigns. The review of 24 primary studies found evidence that alcohol campaigns can be recalled by the public and increase awareness around the risks of alcohol and recommended units. However, there was little evidence that exposure to media campaigns is associated with reduced alcohol consumption.
  • Twenty cost-effectiveness reviews were identified: eight on smoking campaigns, others on sexual health, diet and activity and multiple behaviours. There was moderate evidence that mass media campaigns for tobacco control are cost-effective. There was also weak evidence that campaigns to increase physical activity and reduce salt intake can be cost-effective. However, the reviews found no studies had assessed whether sexual health campaigns were cost-effective.
  • Looking at programme characteristics, several reviews found that longer duration or higher intensity campaigns had greater effectiveness (mostly in relation to tobacco and sexual health). There was some evidence that negative messages, pushing the health risks, are effective, but it was unclear whether this is better than positive messages.
    There was also evidence that media campaigns affect population groups differently. Smoking and drug campaigns, in particular, were found to have the greatest impact on children and young people. Gearing campaigns towards the target audience may be most effective.

What does current guidance say on this issue?

Public Health England’s marketing strategy (2014-17) outlined how it intended to use marketing to support people in making sustainable changes to improve their health. Marketing campaigns include Start4Life and Change4Life, which promote healthy diet and activity patterns for childhood and families. The Smokefree campaign supports people in quitting smoking, accompanied by mass activity campaigns such as ‘Stoptober’. PHE is reviewing new campaigns to promote safe alcohol consumption (initiatives such as ‘Dry January’) and improve sexual health.

Several NICE guidelines recommend using mass media campaigns both to convey the risks and negative images of smoking (particularly to young people) and to raise awareness of stop smoking services. Several public health guidelines cover the use of media in raising awareness around healthy diet and activity, alcohol and sexual health.

What are the implications?

This review demonstrates the complexity of evidence around mass media campaigns. The campaigns, assessed outcomes and their effects were diverse.

The content and context of interventions are likely to have considerable bearing on effectiveness. The review identifies some beneficial campaign characteristics, particularly making sure messages are appropriate to the target audience who may be most engaged with/at risk of the behaviour.

The researchers call for further research into alcohol and dietary campaigns, and into the important question of whether these campaigns provide value for money.

Citation and Funding

Stead M, Angus K, Langley T et al. Mass media to communicate public health messages in six health topic areas: a systematic review and other reviews of the evidence. Public Health Research. 2019;7(8).

This project was funded by the NIHR Public Health Research Programme (project number 13/163/17).



NICE. Smoking: preventing uptake in children and young people. PH14. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; 2014.

NICE. Smoking: reducing and preventing tobacco use. QS82. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; 2015.

NICE. Stop smoking interventions and services. NG92. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; 2018.

NICE. Behaviour change: general approaches. PH6. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; 2007.

NICE. Physical activity for children and young people. PH17. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; 2009.

NICE. Obesity prevention. CG43. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; 2006 (updated 2015).

NICE. Alcohol: school-based interventions. PH7. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; 2007.

Public Health England. Marketing strategy 2014–2017. London: Public Health England; 2014.

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Produced by the University of Southampton and Bazian on behalf of NIHR through the NIHR Dissemination Centre


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