Government must use stick to get nation eating carrots

I received a circular from an agency the other day trumpeting, quite rightly, the work it had done for the Department of Health’s Change4Life campaign.

Russell Parsons
Russell Parsons

The email activity, created by The Lateral Group, had won a Direct Marketing Association award for excellence in targeted, personalised communication, ultimately producing tailored action plans for 45,000 kids and parents.

The campaign is but one example of the direct marketing activity that has underpinned the Change4Life campaign since it kicked-off at the beginning of 2009. And one example of how social marketing can make a difference, if data released by the Department of Health earlier this year is to be believed.

But the campaign is about to end as we know it. Health secretary Andrew Lansley recently announced that responsibility for the bulk of the Change4Life activity will be passed to the food and drinks industry. The trade-off for business of the additional costs incurred? A shift from a top-down regulatory stance to one where personal responsibility is fostered.

Perfect then for brands that fear the bottom-line impact of draconian legislation more than the additional cost of being a conduit for personal empowerment.

Not to suggest that the food and drinks industry are irresponsible, money-hungry evil doers that want to inflate our kids to epidemic levels in the pursuit of revenue. Companies know their customers; they have advanced CRM systems that can produce impressively targeted campaigns.

As good corporate citizens they will understand their responsibility to be open, honest and realistic in the communication of the potential health risks of the products.

But reality bites and, as the health lobby argues, the cold hard fact for industries reliant on selling foods high in fat or salt could well outweigh their desire to tackle obesity.

It is obvious what has motivated the Government’s carrot and stick approach, the desire to cut marketing budgets. But the carrot and stick approach must be balanced and brands need to make sure that the threat of the stick – regulation – is real. Otherwise we might have seen the last of the likes of the Lateral campaign.

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