Defining Moments in Australian History: Launch of Life. Be in it.

By AG Staff 3 October 2022
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1975: One of Australia’s most recognisable health campaigns begins.

Australia’s Life. Be in it. campaign – to increase physical activity and general wellbeing among Australians and encourage them to take control of their health – was ahead of its time. It came well before the first International Conference on Health Promotion, organised by the World Health Organization and held in Ottawa, Canada, on 21 November 1986, when the Ottawa Charter on Health Promotion was signed.

This document defined health promotion as “the process of enabling people to increase control over, and to improve, their health”. Campaigns to facilitate this new definition of health promotion aimed to encourage people to adopt good health practices and avoid those that lead to ill-health. Such campaigns were a response to former efforts that had focused only on individuals and groups already at risk for certain illnesses and diseases. They were also an attempt to avoid late intervention.

Life. Be in it. began as a Victorian government health initiative, launched in 1975 by the state Department of Youth, Sport and Recreation with support from the federal government. The campaign, developed by the Monahan Dayman Adams advertising agency, involved community announcements on television, cartoons in newspapers, and community-based programming. It aimed to educate the Australian public about exercise in a fun and non-threatening way.

In 1977 the state minister for Youth, Sport and Recreation, Brian Dixon, claimed that 97 per cent of Victorians were aware of the campaign, 47 per cent were thinking about becoming more active and 35 per cent had become more active. This great success in Victoria prompted the federal government to roll out the campaign across the country in 1978.

The central cartoon character of the campaign was Norm, so named to signal his status as an everyday Australian. He was a “lethargic, beer-bellied, middle-aged couch potato, more interested in watching telly than doing formal exercise”. It was hoped viewers who associated any kind of physical activity with too much effort or difficulty would identify with Norm. During the course of the campaign, Norm promoted the inclusion of daily exercise into his “normal” routine, which increased his fitness and wellbeing with little effort.

The success of the Life. Be in it. campaign was largely due to the close collaboration in 1975 between advertising executive Phillip Adams and graphic designer Alexander Stitt. Adams was a well-known broadcaster, columnist and cartoonist who had begun his career in advertising at Briggs and James and then became a partner in Brian Monahan and Lyle Dayman’s agency.

Stitt later recalled the brief that Adams gave him. “‘Siddown,’ he said, offering me a gold-tipped Sobranie Black Russian [cigarette]. ‘Brian Dixon, the minister for Youth, Sport and Recreation, saw some German fitness campaign while he was away and now he wants to do one here – a community service campaign to get people fit. We did some research and if we get it right, it might work.’ He tossed a book-thick document across the desk. ‘I’ve called it Life. Be in it. We need a family – an animated family, I told Dicko, to get rid of any class stuff and age groups problems. What do you think?’” The creative pairing of Adams and Stitt went on to create other iconic advertising campaigns, such as Slip! Slop! Slap! which promoted sun safety.

A 1979 report evaluated the Life. Be in it. program. It used a sample size of 3960 respondents drawn from the capital city and two regional cities in each state, and proportional representation from the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. It claimed that more than 40 per cent of respondents felt that the Life. Be in it. campaign had made them think about being active. Twenty per cent of respondents actually identified taking steps to be more active.

Life. Be in it. lost federal funding in 1981 as health promotion gained momentum and larger, more elite programs were developed. It was subsequently registered as an incorporated company and worked in partnership with other health organisations, including the National Heart Foundation.

Today, the Life. Be in it. brand is managed under licence in each state by companies or associations.

‘Launch of Life. Be in itforms part of the National Museum of Australia’s Defining Moments in Australian History project: