Editorial: Healthy eating ads are one tough brief

The obesity issue presents Britain's ad industry with a true conundrum.

Its plea that it wants to be seen as part of the solution rather than the problem is in danger of becoming a cliche. But turning rhetoric into action may prove considerably more difficult than it first appears.

Overwhelmed by waves of hysterical tabloid criticism for allegedly creating a nation of ailing overweights and under enormous pressure from a Government wanting instant solutions, food advertisers and their agencies can't be seen to be sitting on their hands.

So what more obvious answer could there be than an initiative under which food advertisers would come together to bankroll a campaign to encourage healthy eating and active lifestyles? Even better if the Government helps with the funding. The Advertising Association's Food Advertising Unit certainly thinks the idea worth exploring and is asking agencies for their thoughts on whether or not such an initiative could fly.

On the face of it, there are some encouraging precedents. The Portman Group, funded by alcohol manufacturers to promote sensible consumption, is pro-active in the offensive against binge drinking. Meanwhile, the Government's drink-drive campaign is an outstanding example of how advertising can better social behaviour.

But while the idea is initially attractive, it could be easily derailed by any number of potential obstacles. For one thing, there's a credibility issue. Just how seriously would consumers take advice on curbing their carbohydrates from advertising funded by makers of crisps, sweets and fizzy drinks? For another, there's the problem of getting a consensus among food manufacturers. Those with long enough memories compare the formation of the Portman Group in 1989 to herding cats, as one part of the drinks industry blamed another for their predicament.

Another question-mark hangs over how to communicate what may turn out to be a complex message about what constitutes a healthy diet. Don't drink too much is simple. But, as one industry insider rightly asks: "How many chocolate bars is it safe to eat in a week? It's hard to lay down rules."

Undoubtedly, the task is complex. Not least because of the difficulty in reaching a tower-block-dwelling, blue-collar community. It's this group above all that the advertising has to reach but, as the anti-smoking campaign has shown, the least likely to act on what it says.

Finally, there's the political dimension. Behaviour-changing campaigns work slowly and this one is unlikely to yield tangible results quickly enough for ministers with an election looming. A better candidate for the ultimate brief from hell would be hard to find.

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