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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?


Red, Amber, Green

Going green can be sexy and fun.With all the current floods – July 07 has been the wettest year to date and by contrast, July 06 was the hottest on record – people are starting to wake up to the fact that all this talk of environmental disaster may be true.

Whereas Al ‘the bore’ Gore (as some cynics call him) got us all talking about the inconvenient truth of environmentalism over our gin and tonics, they say that experience is far more effective a persuader than talk alone. Well that certainly seems to be the case. I’m sure event and field marketers will be chuffed.

This has led to a massive panic to go green. Immediate action or the planet gets it. The fact that current environmental issues are anything but just current seems to have missed some people but makes for good media headlines. It was over a decade ago that we had the hole in the Ozone Layer panic. Credit where credit’s due, politicians actually managed to act and ban most CFCs. The only downside was that hairspray sales went down, while hair gel went up and spiky hair made a come back.

Some groups are running around like headless chickens, the danger of which is to create green fatigue. Or worse still, to have politicians creating new laws and regulations to grab media column inches. Every politician needs to be ‘seen to be green’. Like boy racers at the traffic lights, their foot is flat down on the change accelerator, when they should actually be trying some gentle eco breaking instead.

But then the smart people don’t go into politics; they have other ways to influence society. ‘Change the World for a Fiver’ and ‘Change the World 9-5’ (by the group We are what we do – takes a more realistic approach. If we all make a series of changes – just a few small steps – we will end up making one big leap. A similar approach has been adopted by a new website I’ve came across recently called The Nag ( Each month you commit yourself to one small act. That’s just 12 a year. It’s almost perfect for those armchair ecos who really want conscience with convenience.

Where so many eco sites can be a bit too worthy, banging the drum of guilt and demanding we should all be ‘consumers of conscience’, The Nag takes a lighter look at ethics. They even offer a ‘crap prize draw’ competition. This is ethics with fun, which is how it should be. After all, we in advertising all know that Ogilvy was very wrong when he said; “no one buys from a clown.” Sorry David but humour wins hearts and minds and sales every time. Why? Because it engages you and gets under the radar. The first thing we do when we meet people is use a smile and humour. So if it works there, why not for ethics?

Another site I like is Tree Huggers ( who have a friendly magazine like approach: intelligent, witty and very factual without eco emotionalism. But hidden in the site is the oddest section I’ve come across on any green site – how to green your sex life. Here you can learn the process of greening your ecological footprint in the bedroom and a guide to buying greener sex toys. As I’ve said, fun sells but so does sex.

Tim Smit, founder and Chief Executive of the Eden Project, believes future leaders should be “big, bold, dangerous, compelling, sexy, aggressive and rock and roll”.

So green is fun, green is sexy, green is the new rock ‘n’ roll. So what are you waiting for?

Are ads polluting our cities?


Sao Paulo in Brazil has taken down all its outdoor poster ads, neon signs, ads at bus stops, flyers, hand lettered signs and ads on transport. People there felt that the city had become polluted by “worthless advertising” and had turned the city into one giant billboard. Since they have removed all ads the public have said the city has been “cleaned” and reclaimed from the hands of commercial brands. Everyone agrees it looks much better. Not surprisingly the Brazilian ad community and many large brands are unhappy. Though some more creative ad agencies are seeing it as an opportunity to be more innovative.

Could this be the future for other cities? Will Times Square and Piccadilly Circus be next? Westminster council are no fans of advertising and have been trying to reduce ad sites in their borough for years.

Do you remember when red buses and black cabs had no ads on?

Or when posters were actually good to look at? Most of them are now just bad.

I believe brands need to take responsibility for the use of media sites. To subject the public to junk ads is anti-social. And it doesn’t sell, that’s the lunacy of it all. Why would you be engaged by a badly written and designed poster that just shouts at you “buy, buy, buy.” We are all prepared to pay for great art, great creativity that engages us creates desire. But the only one who is prepare to pay for ads are the brands.

The expansion of advertising media sites- almost nothing is safe – sandwich bags, benches, lamp posts, floors, even our skies – means it works less. Too much visual noise means the public sees less. As someone who works in the creative end of the London ad industry, this I know is true.

At the turn of the 20th century the tube network suffered a similar problem. There were so many ads people complained they couldn’t read the station names. It took a very smart man, Frank Pick, to solve it. He took all the ads down and replaced them with just a few. Those ad spaces became far more valuable and generated more income. The Underground started using the sites themselves to encourage Londoners to visit numerous attractions and places. Pick commissioned many young upper coming artists, many who represented new artistic styles of time, like McKnight Kauffer and Graham Sutherland. Within a few years the Underground had gone from being a visual cacophony of ugly ads to an art gallery. It was said that Londoners had become the most art educated in the world.

Out of a problem had come a solution that benefited both the advertisers and society. Maybe we are at that time again. Maybe the new Frank Pick could be Ken Livingstone.

POSTERS FOR PEOPLE AND THE PLANET NOT PROFIT. I would like all advertisers to put up a beautiful image on their billboards in London during January 2008. No cars, cheesy housewives, food or mobile phones, but pictures of clean places, trees, flowers, blue skies – use your imagination – and lets see how that transforms our grey city. I think the public would appreciate brands more who show respect for our environment than ones that pollute them.