Food brands consider the limits of snacking

Led by their industry body, food manufacturers are clamouring to assist the Government in tackling obesity. Will their efforts be enough to head off an advertising clampdown? By David Benady

Food manufacturers are stepping up their efforts to forestall a clampdown on the promotion of snack foods to children.

They mounted a two-pronged attack last week, attempting to show that while they may be perceived as part of the problem, their co-operation is indispensable to finding a solution to the UK’s weight gain. First the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) launched its Manifesto on Food and Health, then the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA) accused the Government of using advertisers as a scapegoat for its own failure to tackle obesity.

In May, both the Government and the food industry were panned by the Commons Health Select Committee’s report on obesity. The former was criticised for its chaotic and unco-ordinated approach to addressing obesity, while the latter was lambasted for its all-too efficient efforts in pushing “less healthy” snack foods to children.

Now the industry is proposing that it works closely with Government to create a joint health campaign to change public attitudes to food and fitness and slow the dramatic increase in obesity over the past two decades. Today, over a fifth of UK adults are overweight, compared with about seven per cent in 1980.

The FDF, representing most of the major food and drink manufacturers in the UK, last week laid out the steps its members will take to “help find solutions to the issues surrounding obesity”.

Initiatives include a commitment by Cadbury Trebor Bassett and Masterfoods to phase out “king-size” chocolate bars and an industry-wide move to withdraw snack food vending machines from schools.

Earlier this year, the FDF wrote to Prime Minister Tony Blair offering its members’ help in creating a campaign to promote healthy lifestyles, and last month director Martin Patterson met health secretary John Reid and culture secretary Tessa Jowell to outline the role the food companies could play in fighting the flab. The FDF says it is still waiting for a response to its suggestions, which include putting health messages on packaging.

At the same time, ISBA director-general Malcolm Earnshaw kept up the pressure by calling on the Government to stop blaming advertisers for obesity and to start investing in public education campaigns to promote healthy living (MW last week).

He suggested that advertising icons such as Gary Lineker, brand spokesman for Walkers Crisps, and Ronald McDonald, the burger chain’s clown mascot, could feature in a campaign to promote health messages. Neither brand owner would comment directly on this as Marketing Week went to press.

For some months, food manufacturers and ad agencies including J Walter Thompson, FCB London and Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO have been working together under the auspices of the Food Advertising Unit, “scenario planning” a range of health campaigns. Cilla Snowball, chief executive of AMV, the agency for Walkers, says a number of creative ideas have been developed, and she believes they could form part of a concerted, Government-funded campaign, which will need a single brand message to ensure it punches at its full weight.

She says: “The Health Select Committee report acknowledged that a co-ordinated response is required to fix the obesity problem in the UK. It recognised that advertising and marketing should be part of a co-ordinated solution.” And she adds: “The real answer to the obesity problem lies in addressing the drivers of long-term behaviour change.”

She believes that the Department for Transport’s Think! road safety campaign should form a “template” for an anti-obesity campaign. Think! brings messages about speed, wearing seat-belts, using mobile phones at the wheel and the dangers of drink-driving under a single brand umbrella.

However, there are question marks over Think!’s effectiveness. Since it was launched in 2000, there has actually been an increase in the number of casualties of motor accidents in which one or more of the drivers were over the alcohol limit. The latest DfT figures show that in 2002, there were 20,000 drink-driving casualties, the highest figure since 1990.

Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents head of road safety Kevin Clinton blames the rise on a reduction in breathalyser tests and a decline in the number of traffic police. “It illustrates that education needs to be part of a strategy that includes enforcement, which is where we are falling down. The Think! campaign and its predecessors have been successful in providing information and changing attitudes, but on its own it is not enough.”

Similar criticisms have been made of state-funded health campaigns, which are deemed to have failed because they have not offered people sufficient back-up to improve their health. Felicity Porritt, chief executive of fitness lobbying group Move4Health, points to the Get Active campaign run by the Health Education Authority in 1998. “People understood the message, but getting behaviour change is completely different: you need a whole back-up strategy to help people,” she says, pointing to the current Healthy Living campaign in Scotland, run jointly by NHS Scotland and the Scottish Executive, as an example of a strong, integrated campaign.

Other observers are concerned that a lack of co-ordination will mean that varying messages are put out by different bodies and that this could diffuse their effectiveness.

One organisation that has pre-empted plans for a co-ordinated health push is Sport England, which has unilaterally tested its own fitness campaign in the North-east under the banner “Everyday sport – every body feels better for it”. The results are being assessed at the moment, and there is no news on whether or when it will be launched nationwide.

But Michael Parker, chairman of Team Saatchi, the agency that created the campaign, believes it could form the centrepiece of a wider health initiative. He is critical of the piecemeal campaigns on health issues around at the moment, such as the Food Standards Agency’s campaign about reducing salt intake, which features a huge slug. “It is an arresting and eye-catching poster, but there is no brand behind it, just a tiny logo. It is typical of the approach that says ‘Here’s a nice idea’, but I’d like to know what happens next. There doesn’t seem to be a campaign plan behind it.”

Later this month, the Department of Health publishes its White Paper on public health, which will give further information on how the Government plans to promote the healthy-living message. Exactly what role the food industry will be invited to play may be an important indicator of the way they will market their products in the UK in years to come – and the way they will be allowed to.

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