Sell the science, but not your soul

To paraphrase Maureen Lipman’s Beattie: what does it matter as long as it’s an ‘ology’? That, in a nutshell, is the attitude of most big food brands towards the endorsement of their products by objective scientific opinion. They need no lessons in the efficacy of such a stamp of approval in leveraging sales; their only concern is that it should be both authentic and credible.

And who can blame them? Brands, after all, exist to make a profit; endorsement is merely a tool to that end, to be disposed of if it becomes blunt. Sadly, for those supplying the endorsement, the relationship is more complex, the motives shrouded in ambiguity and the results often less than satisfactory.

So why do charities – whose research provides much of the scientific material – continue to involve themselves in such alliances with the profit motive? The disastrous partnership between the British Heart Foundation and Nestlé, which led to the latter being fined &£7,500 for implying falsely that eating Shredded Wheat reduces the risk of coronary heart disease, should be lesson enough. And, if it were not, a further lesson comes from the British Dental Association’s backing of Ribena Toothkind, which ended in tears after a judge decreed that manufacturer SmithKline Beecham had claimed, falsely again, that Ribena Toothkind ‘does not encourage tooth decay’.

Yet, despite the risks, not-for-profit bodies still play the endorsement game. In the past few weeks, a number of respected voluntary bodies have been drawn into controversy over brand affiliations. They include the British Dietetic Association, for backing a health claim by Heinz, which has been widely condemned as untenable; and the BHF (again), the National Osteoporosis Society and the Family Heart Association, which were all criticised in a wide-ranging report by the Food Commission.

Certainly, the controversy engendered will have succeeded in raising the profile of these bodies – but not in a way calculated to improve their reputation for being disinterested repositories of public trust. So why do they do it?

The answer seems to be a mixture of naivety and desperation. In many cases, certainly those affecting charities, the underlying issue is saliency – or rather lack of it. Without a high profile, individual charities struggle to be heard – particularly in the era of the National Lottery – in the welter of competition that comprises their sector; and if they are not heard, how can they be expected to levy vital subscriptions from the public? Yet the means of achieving that level of awareness are beyond the resources of all but a very few (already well-known) organisations. A leg-up from a friendly, and powerful, brand must seem like a godsend.

Except that the help proffered never comes without strings attached. What may seem, on paper, a mutually beneficial arrangement risks losing its integrity as the campaign evolves. A campaign, incidentally, in which the charity will at best be a junior partner, exercising little control over the outcome.

The moral? If you must sup with the devil, go, as Diabetes UK does, armed with a comprehensive 12-page book of guidelines – as well as a long spoon.

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