Supermarket brands looking to get closer to consumers by using celebrities suffered at the hands of their chosen stars last week. Speculation began to mount that Iceland would be dropping former Atomic Kitten singer Kerry Katona from its advertising after she was criticised for allegedly smoking and drinking while pregnant (although the company maintains it is still “in negotiations” with Katona over her contract). And TV chef Jamie Oliver, who has vowed to use his celebrity status to change society’s eating habits for the better, strongly criticised Sainsbury’s, the supermarket whose ads he fronts, over animal welfare.
Once again, the issue of trust has taken centre stage. The constant search for convincing spokesmen and women to front commercials highlights the cold indifference that many consumers have towards brands. Consumers are sceptical of claims made by these faceless corporations, who need a credible personality to speak on their behalf. However, this can raise a new set of problems when, as in the case of Katona, the personality falls from grace.
In last week’s spat with Sainsbury’s, Oliver, the scourge of junk food and nemesis of Turkey Twizzlers, suffered a setback to his own reputation as an uncompromising campaigner for quality, ethically-sourced food after he unexpectedly recanted on his criticisms of the chain.
He had started the week in typically robust campaigning mode, slamming Sainsbury’s for failing to attend a debate about the welfare of chickens on his TV programme Jamie’s Fowl Dinners. “I am really upset,” he complained. “The question is why didn’t they come? What is there to hide? It is shocking the people I work for didn’t turn up.”
The programme, broadcast last Friday (January 11), railed against the mistreatment of caged egg-laying hens and chickens sold through supermarkets, and condemned the low prices the chains pay to farmers for the birds – as little as 3p per chicken. Sainsbury’s flew into crisis management mode after Oliver criticised its failure to appear, publishing ads in national newspapers boasting about its animal welfare credentials.
Then, out of the blue, Oliver retreated in a letter sent out to 150,000 Sainsbury’s employees. He dramatically changed his tune, claiming his comments had been taken “out of context” and saying “Sainsbury’s has the most to be proud of on this important animal welfare issue”.
As all celebrities who criticise the brand they promote will know, they have immense power to generate media coverage for the brand in question. Remember the outburst from Dennis Pennis comedian Paul Kaye against Woolworths, whose Christmas advertising he fronted? “I’ve just done an ad for Woolies. What a cunt! I’ll have to hide from the telly for six months,” he said and was promptly sacked.
These may have been the ravings of a comedian, but Oliver’s accusation against Sainsbury’s was far more serious and potentially damaging. It was deeply embarrassing for the supermarket chain which has strongly promoted its ethical credentials and has used Oliver as proof of its commitment to quality food.
In fact, it has been suggested that Oliver has only retained his place as the chain’s frontman because of his campaigning profile. He was due to be dropped when Sainsbury’s reviewed its advertising in 2005 as his profile was fading. But he was reinstated when his fame grew during that year through his TV programme Jamie’s School Dinners, which exposed poor standards in school food.
Some observers are now asking whether he has lost his bottle. The letter of apology followed a phone call with chief executive Justin King, which raises the possibility that King put pressure on him to change his story. Then again, it is hard to imagine what pressure King could exert on the millionaire, already worth £25m. Oliver hardly needs the work – and in fact may not have it for too much longer. King refused to confirm that Oliver’s contract would be renewed when it runs out in April, saying: “Ask me again in April.”
The entire episode made Oliver look something of a blunderer who had triggered a vicious media battle that slipped beyond his control and ended up with egg on his face. In truth, Sainsbury’s does not have a strong record on the welfare of the broiler chickens it sells. Despite its ethical reputation and strong sales of organic and free range birds, the chain has been criticised for its poor treatment of chickens. According to animal rights campaigners Compassion in World Farming, Sainsbury’s came fourth in the league of animal welfare among supermarkets last year after Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and the Co-op. Last year, it increased the proportion of intensively farmed chickens on sale.
But in an interview on Radio 4’s Today Programme last week, chief executive Justin King dropped the bombshell that the chain was going to axe all intensively farmed chickens across its range. “We are moving to the RSPCA welfare standard on all of our chickens,” he said, as revealed by marketingweek.co.uk last week. This means it will move away from industry standards in chicken production and adopt those of the RSPCA’s Freedom Foods. These have strict requirements for chicken welfare including using chickens that grow more slowly, rather than birds genetically bred to fatten up in a matter of a few weeks and giving birds more room in barns. They must also be allowed a “proper night time period” of six hours, to rest rather than feed, which further slows the fattening-up period.
Sainsbury’s contacted Compassion in World Farming last Wednesday to ask it for a laudatory quote to use in its newspaper ads on chicken welfare. It is understood that the charity was persuaded to endorse the supermarket’s policies because it knew the chain would be announcing this transformation to its chicken welfare.
According to Compassion in World Farming chief executive Phil Lymbery, Sainsbury’s has been planning this revolutionary move for some time. It may be that the Oliver issue forced it out into the open this week. Lymbery says it is a “major, ground-breaking commitment and a major step forward for animal welfare,” and adds: “Sainsbury’s has already committed to phase out eggs produced by caged hens across its entire range, and Justin King was clear on the Today programme: Sainsbury’s will follow that up by phasing out highly intensive chicken farming and will adopt the RSPCA’s Freedom Food standards across the range.”
The RSPCA says it is unaware of the commitment, but insists Sainsbury’s must give a date by which it plans to achieve it. A spokeswoman adds: “If what Justin says is correct, that would be fantastic news. But we would like a time frame within which it is going to achieve that. We have asked retailers to ban standard chickens by 2010.”
So perhaps the mockney rebel is not such an oaf as he appeared last week, though his past record on campaigning shows his initiatives can backfire. For instance, after his campaign for high quality food to be served in schools, hundreds of thousands of children stopped taking school dinners and opted to eat junk food bought outside school or to bring in packed lunches. And some believe the picture of poor nutrition in school meals he painted in the Jamie’s School Dinners series persuaded many parents to stop their children from having the dinners even though most school meals were of a high standard.
The events of the past week appear to have damaged the images of both Sainsbury’s and Jamie Oliver. Perhaps the only ones to have gained anything from the situation are the chickens – and maybe, let’s be fair, consumers.