Iain Murray: Advertising is the key to a long life and healthy living

As a dinosaur in Peterborough can attest, some habits die hard. But there now exists something unavailable to scaly old reptiles: a good ad campaign, says Iain Murray

Astonishing evidence that fast food outlets existed far earlier than previously supposed has been unearthed in a clay quarry near Peterborough.

A team of scientists led by Professor Peter Doyle of the University of Greenwich have found what they believe is the oldest authenticated fossilised vomit, predating the earliest known Wimpy bar by some 160 million years. Prof Doyle says the vomit sheds light on the dining habits of ichthyosaurs. In a telling phrase, he adds, “The stomach contents were rapidly evacuated”.

Anyone who has drunk a dozen pints of lager followed by six onion bhajis, four popadoms, a chicken biriani and an After Eight mint will know what he means. Though even with the benefit of carbon dating it is impossible to pin down the exact time when the ichthyosaur chundered, the likelihood is that it was on a Friday night. Little has changed in Peterborough in the intervening millions of years. The same is true of just about every other town and city in the land, as a recent survey by the Foods Standards Agency confirms.

The study found that 5.5 million people suffered food poisoning in the past year, with 75 per cent saying they became ill after eating out. It is significant that ichthyosaurs seldom, if ever, ate in. Thanks to Prof Doyle, we now know the problem of upset stomachs caused by browsing and sluicing, in the sort of place where the menu cards are laminated, has existed for far longer than anyone imagined. There has to be a remedy, and to its credit the Government has found it: it’s called advertising.

At a cost of &£20m, an initial 250,000 restaurants and catering outlets are to be sent an information pack containing hygiene advice for those working in the industry. It will be available in several languages, but since symbols are often more powerful than words, it will contain a sick bag. This item, explains the agency, is to emphasise the result of not abiding by hygiene standards. It is a message that may not be readily understood, especially in those establishments that send out takeaway orders in plastic-lined bags almost identical to those used by victims of stomach disorders.

This Government’s faith in the power of advertising borders on the superstitious. Last year, COI Communications spent &£142.6m on ads, a rise of almost 40 per cent on the previous year and more than twice the sum spent by the Conservatives under John Major. Show the Government a problem, especially one concerning health, and it will show you a TV commercial, or perhaps send you a sick bag. So when a growing number of parents question the wisdom of injecting their children with three viruses at once, what is the answer? Why, it is to spend &£3m on a campaign telling them they are wrong.

Of course a bossy government with an addiction to advertising is not all bad news, especially at a time when advertising spending in general is falling. It is questionable, however, whether any industry, even one as meritorious as advertising, should be subsidised by the taxpayer in this way, especially since, as Lord Leverhulme told us all those years ago, half the money spent on ads is wasted and nobody knows which half.

In theory, and one suspects in practice too, there is no end to this spending. For instance, research in the US suggests that too much sleep kills; though, to be fair, one of the authors concedes that further studies are needed to “determine if setting your alarm clock earlier will improve your health”. Should such research confirm the initial findings, could a government campaign be far behind? Is it too fanciful to imagine every household in the land receiving an information pack on healthy sleeping, including a burst hot water bottle to emphasise the dangers of being too warm and cosy when there is work to be done and longer lives to be led?

Yet more research, this time in Stockholm, shows that short men are less likely to marry than taller men, and unmarried men are more likely to die from heart disease or strokes.

This is a tough one, especially for a government that sees marriage as simply one of a number of equally valid alternatives. More research will be needed to establish whether a live-in partner person is as capable of warding off premature thrombosis as a legally constituted spouse. As for the dangers of being short, that is trickier still. One is reminded of Neil Kinnock’s ringing rhetoric, “I warn you not to be old… I warn you not to be sick…” But even an administration as messianic as this might shrink away from labelling the inside legs of trousers with the words, “HM Government Health Warning: Shortness Kills”.

However one could imagine a campaign urging undersized men to marry, or at any rate to cohabit with a partner person; though it would probably be wise if this were to run alongside another campaign extolling short men as suitable companions with whom to saunter down life’s rocky path.

A budget of &£20m should provide sufficient information packs to set the ball rolling. Each would include a sick bag as a reminder of what happens when a small man gets into a waterbed with a big lady.

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