This week advertising comes under attack again for selling to children. This time it’s for using cartoon characters to flog unhealthy breakfast cereals, biscuits and sweets. Which? have condemned the use of these loveable and highly influential cartoon folk for encouraging our kids to eat more fat, sugar and salt.
According to them, Spiderman has turned to the other side and instead of saving people is slowly killing them off.
It’s hardly news. Brands have been using cartoon characters to sell products for almost 100 years. Many have now become icons. But today we live in a more ethical society and advertising along with big brands are the new evil.
I can understand why the Advertising Association hit back at Which? but it won’t win any friends outside of advertising for doing so. Which? is a powerful brand that people trust more than advertising.
We do have a big social problem though and as advertisers have to take some responsibility for the outcome of what we do. It’s easy for me running an ethical agency to turn unethical advertisers away but for most agencies the money is more important than the ethics. But the facts are hard to ignore. And as most of us have kids, one we need to be concerned about.
Obesity levels are rising in the UK – over 13% of 8 year olds and 20% between 11 and 15 are obese. By contrast, so are cases of medical malnutrition due to bad eating (rather than lack of eating). Malnutrition actually costs the NHS more than obesity – in total, more than three million people are estimated to be malnourished at any one time in the UK. It’s a lifestyle issue.
Most children are putting on excess weight because of their lifestyles – rather than because of advertising. An unhealthy diet and a lack of physical activity are responsible. Exercise is no longer a regular part of everyone's day – some children never walk or cycle to school, or play any kind of sport. Many kids spend hours in front of a computer games or computer doing nothing. According to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (2000), 4 out of 10 boys and 6 out of 10 girls do not do the minimum one hour a day of physical activity recommended.
That’s not the advertisers fault either.
High-calorie foods are abundant, relatively cheap and heavily promoted, specifically at children. Unfortunately, unethical food products outspend ethical ones 100 to one.
Kellogg’s may well have come top of the breakfast pops but it’s also coming under the ethical spotlight. Ironically the cereal market is one that has been ahead of the game in ethical claims. Jordan’s hold the organic, Eat Natural the natural ingredients and Kellogg the health card. Nestle…well they put fun plastic toys in their packets (ethics has never been high on their agenda).
While small brands can get away with putting salt, sugar, fats and E numbers in their food, big brands are now expected to take ethical responsibility. Sadly few really do take ethics responsibly. And less know how to communicate to ethically minded consumers. Sadly few care as long as they keep delivering fat profits to shareholders from added fat.
As much as I agree that selling junk food to kids is not ethical, for Which? to blame adland is unfair (I can’t help feeling that Pr was a driver here). While the brands blame the public, the public blame their lifestyle. No one is taking responsibility.
You can’t help feeling that while one part of our society are turning towards a more ethical lifestyle, another are turning away from it. And with it goes their kids. Yet how often are the parents blamed when it’s easier to blame the food companies or advertising?
Reading some recent Mintel reports it appears 40% of the public could be termed chav eaters. They care little for their own health or for their family’s. And care nothing for ethics. It’s no coincidence that most overweight kids have overweight parents.
Those parents that do care are growing in number thankfully, in part due to increased wealth. But our society is a demanding one, fast moving and time poor. As a consequence convenience tops the list rather than ethics. Bad food is a lot easier to buy and serve than good food.
So should the responsibility fall upon manufacturers to take responsibility? Many will ask if they really need to add so much unhealthy stuff? Walkers have recently reduced salt and fats in their crisps and they still taste great. So why didn’t they do it before they were forced to?
I’m a great believer in the concept of a FAT TAX. I think taxing calories could be highly effective. Supermarkets know that consumers put price before anything, so if healthier food was cheaper and fatty foods expensive it’s easy to guess what would happen.
Given all the possible targets, it seems a little unfair to attack the cereal market. Fact is kids need sugars, fats and carbs as part of a healthy diet. Only last week a survey said we shouldn’t give kids low fat foods at they inhibit growth. Cereals are also packed with vital minerals and vitamins.
Many years ago when I worked on a baby food brand we came under attack because it had sugar in. The anti-sugar lobby believed that baby food shouldn’t have any sugar in. To them all sugar was evil. What they hadn’t considered was just how much sugar was naturally in fruit. Apples are loaded with it and babies need it.
On the subject of sweet things, I came across a fascinating food fact recently. What product do you think has the most e numbers in? Apparently, I’m told, it was Kellogg’s’ artificial Maple syrup.
If they ever decide to market it to kids I wonder which cartoon character they’d use? Any suggestions?