Ad people are clever – problem-solvers by nature. Stopping them from using celebrities to promote food to kids is dumb because it’s just another creative constraint and ad people eat creative constraints for breakfast. Likely net effect on the sales of high sugar, high fat food to kids? Zero. A clever approach would exploit the collective brains of the marketing community by setting them a huge, industry-wide challenge – one with some measurable goals: increase take-up of municipal sports facilities amongst kids by 15%, reduce the incidence of early-onset diabetes by 5%, grow sales of ‘green light’ foods through fast food outlets by 10%… that kind of thing. The ad industry doesn’t need a bunch of clueless and ineffective new rules – they just need a good brief.
Their clients are a different matter, though. Manufacturers and retailers need different incentives – some real legal constraints: mandated reductions in salt and sugar content and scary labeling for ‘red light’ foods, for example. Once the new constraints are in place, though, the creativity of the industry should take over. Look at McDonalds. The nasty prospect of commercial annihilation at the hands of next wave outlets (from trendy soup-in-a-hurry merchants to cool ‘third place’ coffee lounges) has produced a flurry of changes to the menu: from the cosmetic and largely pointless (organic milk, free range eggs) to substantive dietary novelty (salads, fruit happy meals). McDonalds is a brand in transition – I’ll bet you a Big Mac you won’t recognise The Golden Arches in five years. Call me credulous but I think the food industry, given some smart guidance from legislators and some help from their creatives, could surprise us by helping to deliver a healthier population sooner than we think.
Some links: opposition to regulation from a Times leader, remarkably comprehensive obesity briefing from The Daily Mail, Gay.com on Lord Tebbit’s hilarious buggery gag on The Today Programme. Chairman of the Food Standards Agency on the obesity crisis.