Making the invisible visible - Consumer language of the immune system

10 Jun 2020

As we begin to emerge from the shielding of locked-down homes, there are inevitably questions of the health risks that lie outside our front doors. We now look at ourselves through a lens of known risk factors, as well as pondering what protection lies in the submerged world of our individual immunity.

Awareness of our body’s defence system is rising, and with that, questions around how we can best manage it, what that means for our own health and then what that means for society as a whole. However, we are also dealing with a great unknown: how do we know if our immune system is doing a good job? Unlike exercise or dieting, where you can see or feel the physical effects of your behaviour, our understanding of our immune system functions on a pattern of educated guesses and assumptions.

People are protecting themselves from an invisible enemy (whether cold, flu or COVID) with an invisible mechanism (the immune system), with no real guarantee about what has worked and what has not. Is a winter cold a sign of a weak immune system, or a particularly aggressive virus? Was there more you could have done to protect yourself? How can you ever know?

Immunity needs are met in numerous ways – from the clinical effectiveness of OTC medicines to the more holistic claims of natural remedies; from food and diet brands, to supplements, to lifestyle brands which may help us sleep or reduce our stress, or remove invisible microbes from the air – all of which could have an effect on your immunity and its strength.

At we’ve been exploring the concepts and language of immunity across a number of categories to dig deep into how people make sense of it. It’s caused us to think about the broader narratives of the space. As a result we’ve identified five different ways in which people think about managing their immunity:


  1. The immune system is about… LIVING HOW WE’RE DESIGNED TO LIVE

This area focuses on a return to living as nature and our bodies intended. But not within the vagaries of holistic wellbeing; rather a more specific space of health, protection and safety.

The strength of our immune system is not fixed, it varies depending on a wide range of factors built into our lifestyle, such as diet, sleep, hydration, air purity and many others. The cumulative impact of these lifestyle factors can influence the ongoing strength of our immune system. These lifestyle factors are already associated with our wellbeing. However, with the increased threat of disease, the need to live a life we were designed to live becomes more pressing: the invisible becomes visible through the long term lifestyle behaviours that make us stronger.


  1. The immune system is about… WINNING DAILY BATTLES

This area is about placing the immune system in the context of the small decisions, the day to day behaviours that can influence our susceptibility to disease , and incursions we need to guard against.

The strength of our immune system can be temporarily weakened by our bodies’ state at any one time.  Whether it’s short term illness, stress and fatigue or consumption of stimulants, these short term factors may make us more susceptible to disease.

So the immune system can be talked about in the context of a daily battle; decisions and behaviours totally within our control to influence and so support our immune system. The invisible becomes visible through the small, everyday things we do (or don’t do) to stay strong.


  1. The immune system is about… BUILDING A VISIBLE SUPPORT SYSTEM

This area is about turning the management of our immune system from an intangible scheme into simple and practical ways to make a difference: finding the people, products & brands that can lend a helping hand.

Deciding you want to strengthen your immune system is an important first step, but then what? For most the baseline of knowledge about what our immune system is, how it works and what you need to do to strengthen it is low. There is a need to help people through a journey of knowledge and understanding, and finding the behaviours and products that work for them

So the immune system can be talked about in the context of creating our own personal support system. The invisible becomes visible by surrounding ourselves with the people, knowledge, products, ingredients and tools that help us fight the daily immune system fight more effectively.


  1. The immune system is about… LIVING WITH A POSITIVE MINDSET

This area is about placing the immune system in the context of our mental and emotional wellbeing:  how strong and safe we feel as a big influencer on the resilience of our immune system..

The strength of our immune system is impossible to know. Its only test is how well it protects us from invisible diseases, the only proof of which is when it fails us.  For most people the more immediate and measurable benefits they will experience from looking after their immune system will be the mental and emotional positivity it gives them. And the more we re-enforce this positive mindset, the more we’ll re-enforce and sustain positive behaviours.

With the invisible becoming visible through the positivity, strength and energy we feel day to day, it’s this energy that will support our immune system.


  1. The immune system is about… HONOURING A SOCIAL CONTRACT

This area is about placing the immune system in the context of society as a whole. We don’t experience and fight disease alone, we rely on each other and do it together.

The COVID crisis has made us more aware than ever of the role that community plays in our health. Those who have stronger immunity are safer, those with weaker systems are at more risk. The strength or weakness of our immune system is collective. And in doing so, it can bring out the best or worst in us.

The invisible becomes visible when we are safer as a community as a result of us all individually taking responsibility.


These five areas are just the start point of exploring the meaning and language of the immune system as our understanding of a post lockdown world evolves. If you’d like to know more and want to discuss how we can explore this area further together, please do get in touch.


Written by Hannah Marcus
With a background in semiotics and a newly-acquired MA in Cultural Studies, Hannah is almost too excited by overlaps in technology and feminism. Her hobbies include ballroom dancing and talking about her period.

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