INTERNATIONAL: INTERNATIONAL ISSUES; How the softly-softly approach is working to combat BSE

Gordon MacMillan reports on the efforts to reassure Europe about British beef

Gordon MacMillan reports on the efforts to reassure Europe about British


The devastating effects of the UK’s Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy

(BSE) crisis have been felt well beyond the British beef industry.

Six weeks into the mad cow disease scare, beef sales had plummeted 40

per cent in Holland, 15 per cent in France and Spain and 20 per cent in

Ireland, while in health-conscious Germany sales of beef were cut by


Yet this is one problem Europe decided not to advertise its way out of.

Quite the reverse, in fact. Sales have returned almost to normal in

several countries without much expenditure.

All around Europe, the tale has been very much the same: big beef

campaigns have been put on hold, while plans to reassure the public

about meat have been handled mainly by public relations exercises or

low-key press and poster work.

Only the low-spending local meat authorities appear to have produced

much in the way of extra activity, and then only to distance themselves

from the problems in Britain and perhaps cash in on the absence of

British beef.

The German agricultural board, for example, launched heavy-duty public

relations work, but only a small print campaign. This has produced a

rash of posters outside butcher’s shops featuring a cow and a picture of

the Union Jack with the line: ‘We have to stay outside,’ emphasising

that British beef is now banned.

In Ireland, the food board, Am Bord Bia, has doubled its advertising

spend, although this was only tiny in the first place, to launch a

national and regional press campaign that seeks to drive home the

message that Irish beef is safe, with the line: ‘You can be sure of

Irish beef - the facts.’

Even in the UK, little has been done except to tweak existing ads to

compensate for the crisis. Back in March, Ogilvy and Mather was

appointed by the Government to handle a campaign to allay public fears

about British beef (Campaign, 22 March).

However, no work has seen the light of day from the pounds 250,000

project, which appears to have foundered on the sheer size of the

problem compared with the small amount of cash the Government was

prepared to throw at it.

In France, too, the crisis has not proved to be a bonanza for agencies.

A major pitch for a generic beef campaign has been put on hold until the

controversy dies down, while the French government has decided on a

softly-softly radio and press information campaign rather than an all-

out splash to persuade people to come back to eating beef.

Christian Salez, the managing director of Bates Belgium, sums up the

response. He says European consumers are both cautious and sceptical.

If they return to beef - and sales are now well up from their early lows

- they will do so because they understand more about the BSE crisis and

the part it may play in their lives. Not because the advertising

industry tells them to.

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