How to win over a junk-food jury

It’s funny how attitudes change. Time was, not so very long ago, when the rubicund-faced, pink-jacketed huntsman was the very symbol of Merrie England, or at any rate a hearty stock image in the repertoire of Christmas card illustrations. Nowadays, after a sustained, Government-inspired anti-hunting campaign, he’s iconic in another way: as a sinister agent of the unspeakable cruelty once monopolised by SS officers and Iraqi tyrants.

Gary Lineker, Walkers’ affable ambassador, will be hoping a similar fate does not overtake him. As indeed, in a more generalised and fearful way, must the consumer food industry as a whole.

Sweet, soft-drink and snack manufacturers are painfully aware that politicians are setting them up as scapegoats for the complex social problem of obesity. The clamour for change has quickly reached such a pitch that statutory curbs on advertising and other forms of promotion now look a distinct possibility.

Let’s be honest: the UK food industry has not been blameless. While, unlike the tobacco industry, it has not actually lied about the possible ill-effects its products can have, it has not been exactly truthful either. The disclosure of a memo from AMV.BBDO to its client Walkers, talking explicitly about the value of ‘pester power’ in driving sales, was a gift. The politicians could paint a villain, provide a sticking-plaster solution to a tough problem and mask their (or their predecessors’) complicity in creating it.

The food industry’s reaction to this criticism has ranged from reflex denial to the more considered response of the Advertising Association, which seeks to deflect blame by attributing it to other factors, such as a declining levels of physical exercise and the sparsity of sports facilities. Intellectually, there’s a lot of merit in the AA’s position, which implies the irresponsibility of successive governments in underfunding school sports and neglecting the sporting ethos in general. Nor is it unreasonable to suggest, as the AA does, that consumers bear some responsibility for determining the amount of fatty, salty and sugary foods they eat.

But the industry is far from creating the coherent response circumstances demand. The promotion of sport – as opposed to the exploitation of sport, and its heroes, to promote products – looks a promising area. Many big brands, such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and McDonald’s, could fairly point out that they have been discreetly addressing the issue of sparse and increasingly expensive community sports facilities for years. But their plans have been individual, tactical and piecemeal, when what is needed is a carefully nuanced industry-wide initiative. Which requires an explicit self-denying ordinance in certain areas, such as advertising to children. Cadbury’s recent cack-handed attempt to go it alone with its token-driven Get Active scheme only underscores the point.

There is an opportunity here to steal a march on the politicians. The Government’s policy on fitness is in disarray, with various Whitehall departments fighting a turf war over who should say and do what – so much so that an Activity Co-ordination Team under sports minister Dick Caborn and public health minister Melanie Johnson has been set up to knock heads together.

Looking at the absurdly ambitious projections of the official Game Plan strategy for delivery of ‘sport and physical activity objectives’, published last year, one thing is for sure: no government will be able to achieve these aims on its own.

News Analysis, page 22

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