During Global Marketer Week in Tokyo in May, Campaign asked representatives from some of the world’s biggest consumer goods companies how advertisers can become better citizens. The second of a three-part series looks at advertising potentially unhealthy products in a responsible way. Read Part One here.
Awareness of the impact a poor diet can have on health is higher than ever, and public figures such as celebrity chef Jamie Oliver are among those leading personal charges against what they see as irresponsible messaging by “junk food” brands.
Oliver’s #AdEnough campaign, launched in April, calls for a 9pm watershed on unhealthy food advertising in the UK to shield children from exposure and help tackle childhood obesity. Given that 20% of British children aged 10 to 11 are obese (according to government figures published in March), the concern is justified, and advertisers are under pressure to review their approach.
Some see Oliver’s approach as overly simplistic. “When the result of his campaigning is ultimately that food is more regulated than gambling then it starts to overshoot,” said Matthias Berninger, VP of public affairs for Mars. But he admitted that “in general Jamie Oliver is successful because the industry has not continued to engage with the government.”
Emmanuele Wargon, director general of public affairs and communication for Danone, said advertisers are “massively losing” in the face of increased scrutiny by being overly defensive. She sees the only way to move forward as being honest about the issue and opening up for debate. Otherwise, they can expect to be crushed.
“There’s not much we can complain about because we have not done the right thing [by engaging in dialogue] and that will enable government to do the wrong thing,” reflected Berninger.
The conundrum in any ensuing debate is just how to be ethical when promoting something that is known to contribute to obesity or diabetes. Wargon said it’s a case of encouraging more restrained snacking.
“The question is how you package the message that the product is not supposed to be eaten three times a day,” she said. “It’s about education of the kind of consumption you should have. And that leads to the question of age limits. Until what age do you need to educate versus just marketing.”
It’s also about what not to do. From a consumer perspective, Jamie Barnard, general counsel of global marketing, media and ecommerce for Unilever, said brands should stop promoting lifestyle snapshots that “perpetuate bad behaviour”. “So if we’re talking about ice cream, not showing people binge eating,” he said. “Advertising has a real role to play [in changing behaviour]. You can have people eating foods that should only be consumed in moderation doing stuff that drives healthy behaviour.”
Berninger said brands need to stop making misleading claims of health benefits in snack items. As an example, he pointed to Mars’s own Starburst touting the product’s vitamin C content. “Everyone tries to play in this space because it works,” he said. “So your claims need to be very much under control. You also need to make sure that you don’t target the wrong audiences—that you don’t create the kind of pester power that makes it very hard for parents to control what kids eat.”
When it comes to packaging, reducing portion sizes would help. “It’s a simple but very effective way to reduce the overall intake of calories and sugars,” Berninger said. "There are lots of things you need to do. It’s not just how you advertise, it’s product development too.”
Phil Myers, SVP of global public policy and government affairs for PepsiCo, agreed that marketing—including packaging—essentially determines how people consume something. So as much as it can cause problems, it can also be a force for good. Focusing on no-sugar cola would help shift consumption away from full-sugar cola, he noted.
Nonetheless, companies such as PepsiCo will also need to be mindful of pushback on the marketing of 'diet' products, which despite their label are widely understood to have their own detrimental health impact if consumed excessively.
“What’s going to solve the problem is having broad industry action,” Myers said. “I’m a great believer that what’s important is to make self-regulation work. If we don’t, we will get regulated. And we can be pretty certain that once the genie is out of the bottle, we won’t like where that regulation ends up. It will stifle our creativity and put constraints on us that won’t solve this societal problem.”
Editor's note: This discussion took place in Japan, which has the world’s lowest obesity rate according to figures published last year by the OECD, so the topic is not likely to feature prominently in most Japanese marketers’ thoughts. At the same time, ethical considerations are essentially the same in any country in the world. A single case of childhood obesity that can be attributed even in part to irresponsible marketing is one case too many; and it bears noting that obesity is far from being the only indicator of an unhealthy diet or lifestyle.
Japan should be proud of its status as a relatively healthy nation, but advertisers can also take steps to ensure it remains that way. As some of Campaign’s interviewees noted, advertising can and should be used to exert a positive impact on society at all times. Even if there is no visible problem to solve, brands can play an important role in maintaining and hopefully increasing public health even further, through a combination of restraint and responsible messaging.