The Better food journey
Actionable ideas towards a world eating well
by Corinna Hawkes
Public health advocates across the world welcomed the announcement in the UK this week that the government plans to further restrict unhealthy food marketing. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s experience of complications of COVID-19 appear to have chastened his view that the state has no role to play in what people eat. (His reawakening apparently came after his doctors told him that his own excess weight was culpable.)
Johnson’s attitude to marketing regulation might be new, but the policy proposal itself is not. Globally, calls for restrictions have been rumbling on for decades. There is a huge amount of evidence that unhealthy marketing is pervasive, whether on TV or social media, food packaging or at point-of-sale. In the past year alone, studies from Brazil, Canada, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand, Oman, Russia, Slovenia, Spain and Turkey have added to the growing list. It has been known for years, too, that promotion influences children’s food preferences, attitudes and consumption. A recent video by Jamie Oliver’s Bite Back initiative shows just how advertising slips under the realm of critical thinking. Thus emerges the rationale for regulation: marketing works, so getting rid of it will stop it from undermining kids health.
Yet efforts to take unhealthy food out of the promotional spotlight have been slow on the uptake. Just 16 countries have some type of limited regulation compared to at least 36 countries that have mandated food standards in schools and a similar number with sugary drinks taxes. Only Chile – and now the UK – has taken a tougher stance. This is despite the World Health Organization recommending in 2010 that governments act.
Such slow progress reflects large pushback from members of the food and advertising industry. Their current argument is not so much that marketing makes no difference (they lost that one). It’s that banning it makes no difference. As one food business executive told the Financial Times this week, “we haven’t seen the evidence base that supports the idea that these measures will actually move the dial on obesity.” An advertising industry analyst, cited in the same article, opined that the ban has “no prospect of successfully addressing this health crisis.”
These types of arguments inevitably get waved away by public health campaigners. But who should we believe? Who is right and who is wrong?
As so often with black and white arguments, we have to dig a little deeper to understand what is really going on.
Food companies advertise in order to compete with other companies and brands. Advertising greases the wheels of competition: may the best win. One of the great innovators of advertising back in the early twentieth century, The Quaker Oats Company, understood that plastering a brand on an otherwise undifferentiated product and sticking a coupon on the box could elevate their product above the rest. In more recent years, promotion has been essential to the process of getting the word out about the millions of new products that hit our store shelves every week, all jostling in a crowded marketplace to get ahead of the rest. Promotion has, in a way, become part the product; there is not much point in producing a product, if it’s not possible to promote it.
By taking away a means to compete, then, marketing restrictions create a disincentive to produce unhealthy products in the first place. And by taking away the means to compete for unhealthy products, they set a new, level playing field on which companies can compete for healthier ones. This is what gives them their huge potential power: marketing bans undermine the core business of unhealthy businesses while stimulating progressive companies to innovate, reformulate, and shift their product portfolios. Unhealthy laggards simply lose out. It’s no surprise that some of the more progressive food companies have welcomed the move in the UK.
There is, however, a problem here: the competitive dynamics are still there. As reported by the Financial Times, “others in the [food] sector warn that without advertising, producers would compete on price and quality, either cutting prices or adding sugar.” It is already known that when one marketing channel is cut off, companies will find another: squeeze one part of a balloon, and another part will grow. But the larger point is that it must be recognised that there is an audience for these products. Financial insecurity, poor housing, lack of space to prepare food, stressful lives, the search for convenience when low on time, inadequate information and knowledge, feelings of low self-esteem, aspiration to be a fully paid-up member of society – all of these things drive us towards unhealthy foods; it’s not just that we saw an ad on TV. And once the often sweet, salty, easy-to-like flavours become habitual, our taste buds can’t cope with much else. For many businesses, in other words, there is still a market worth competing for.
By putting advertising regulations into this bigger, systems context, we can see they are a mere snip, a government wielding a pair of scissors, cutting a link in the system without changing the system itself, changing neither the free market economy that elevates competition nor the systems in which people live their lives. Thus the food execs have a point: as a single step, restricting marketing may not have much effect at all.
Where does this leave us? It leaves us with the recognition that every action on the better food journey is both necessary and not enough. There are many snips, many new ties, that will be needed to build a healthier system. In the meantime, we need to start somewhere. Limiting food marketing is a powerful way to send a message that enough is enough; that in itself will stimulate some type of systems response. And then we continue along the road, getting on with all the other things that need to be done to effect systems change.
Looked at this way, we can see both black and white are right. We need to act where it makes sense – but we also need to recognise that we cannot say with any certainty that marketing restrictions will make enough of a difference. No, we have to act despite uncertainty.
This past Friday, I was asked to appear on a late-night TV show (Newsnight) to talk about the UK announcement. Known for its hard questioning, I was joined by a Member of Parliament and an ad man. The discussion soon became black and white. “I am right, you are wrong.” No space for nuance. No space for engagement. No space for uncertainty. No space to find the common ground that provides the base for more collective, effective action. While this is (unfortunately) to be expected from our rapid fire, macho-style media machine, it also reflects a broader political discourse that elevates black and white thinking. If we ever care to wonder why we are not getting further along the pathway towards change, we don’t need to look much further than that.