The sickening success of Sunny Delight

Consumers have proved once again that when it comes to taste, they can be depended on to make the unhealthy choice.

News from the frontline shows that in the ceaseless battle between, on the one side, marketing, and, on the other, consumer groups, health lobbyists and an assortment of quangos, marketing has scored a palpable hit. The enemy, as always on such occasions, is crying foul.

In just two years, Sunny Delight, a soft drink made by Procter & Gamble, has become one of the top ten best-selling brands in the UK. With annual sales of 150m, it is up there with other essentials of life such as Coca-Cola, Persil and Nescafé.

According to the Daily Mail, Sunny Delight was launched to the “despair of dentists, health campaigners and consumer groups”. This is a curious claim and shows just how intense is the war between the campaigners and the marketers.

Long before the product launch, while the grim-faced scientists at P&G, some monocled and of German origin, were still bent over their bubbling test tubes in a secret underground bunker somewhere in Cincinnati, they were infiltrated by a spy from the British Dental Association disguised as a normal human being. When his findings were smuggled out of the country in a crate of peach blossom Pampers Baby Wipes, the intelligence sent shock waves through UK consumer groups and health campaigners. In a word, they despaired.

The launch was calculated and irresistible. Thousands of bottles of Sunny Delight rained in on these defenceless isles, wreaking havoc among an unsuspecting civilian population. Only now are we counting the cost. So far, the casualty toll shows that large numbers of the dental profession, consumer groups, and many others described simply as “caring” are suffering a variety of Delight-induced ailments, from palpitations and soaring blood pressure to outbursts of indignation and fainting fits.

A heavily sedated spokesman for the Food Commission told the Mail, “It [Sunny Delight] has the same amount of sugar as regular Coke but it is marketed as healthy. Nobody would ever argue Coke was healthy. Its success shows the power of marketing. People have a choice and other drinks are much better for you.”

That is the trouble with choice: it is so often exercised in ways which the lobbyists disapprove of. If consumers were to see sense and restrict their choice to products endorsed by the dentists, the Health Education Authority and others set up, often at considerable effort by themselves alone, over the great uneducated mass of people, choice would be a good thing. As it is, choice, in the wrong hands, is dangerous and, in a well-ordered world, would be banned.

As indeed would Sunny Delight. It is only five per cent fruit juice, the rest is mostly water and sugar. And while nobody would argue that water and sugar were unhealthy (try staying alive without them), they are best taken with added fluoride from a tap and in fresh fruit. To ingest them from a manufactured drink marketed under the slogan “the great stuff that kids go for” is to invite catastrophe.

We do not, however, know the extent of the mayhem. How many bottles of Sunny Delight a day are required to induce dental caries, obesity, diabetes, and periodontal collapse? One? Three? A dozen? Fifty? Might the ill-effects be prevented by diligent teeth-brushing? Or is Sunny Delight so inherently pernicious, so much worse than other sugared drinks, that it ought to be withdrawn from sale? Or – and here we stray into the realm of fantasy – is it just a convenient stick with which to beat the marketers who, yet again, are party to a huge conspiracy to damage the well-being and health of the public?

There can be little doubt that, given their way, the lobbyists would indeed ban Sunny Delight and a great deal else besides. Indeed, such would be the list of items to be proscribed that it could be wound several times around the Mandeldome before rising into the boundless reaches of infinity. All that stands in its way is the residual stupidity of those who in their ignorance insist that proof should be consequent upon accusation: that it is not enough for self-appointed experts to declare a product to be damaging for its production to cease forthwith.

The stubborn fools who defy the will of health campaigners may be ignorant, but they have memories.They recall when milk, butter, eggs, and cheese were good for you; they remember when alcohol was bad for you before it became good for you; they have watched the cyclical processes by which tea, coffee, and margarine were first bad for you, then good before once again becoming bad. The fools conclude in their muddled way that experts are fallible and that killer substances are no less subject to whim and fashion than hemlines. Sunny Delight was launched to the despair of dentists, health campaigners and quangos. More irksome still, it is legally produced and legally advertised.

In the Arcadia dreamt of by the campaigners, it would of course be surplus to requirements, a false want, but so too would many other things including, at random, keg bitter, Denise van Outen, middle-aged men with ponytails, Noel Edmonds, middle-aged women with tattooed buttocks, stress counsellors, Guardian readers, icons, lawyers, the European Union, other motorists, Sophie Wessex, and dentists, health campaigners and quangos.

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