Last week I participated in a debate organised by the Worshipful Company of Marketors, of which I am a Past Master. The motion was that this house believes that the marketing community should oppose the possible tightening of rules on advertising and promotion restrictions that will apply to foods that are High in Fat, Sugar and Sodium (“HFSS”). Essentially the question boils down to whether the marketing industry can be trusted to act responsibly in the promotion of unhealthy foods, or should we welcome the planned toughening of government controls in this area?
I was invited to second the opposition to this motion, in other words the opposition to the opposition, based on a recent blog where I had referred to some of the problems caused by sugar.[i]
This is despite the fact that I have my own experience in marketing sweet products. At an earlier stage in my career I worked for Mars from 1976 to 83 during which time I marketed chocolate and other products based on sugar, particularly in Chile where I sold vast quantities of M&Ms. Later I worked for Pillsbury from 1984 to 88 when I was general manager of one of their subsidiaries, Green's of Brighton whose principal products were cake and dessert mixes with very high levels of sugar. I was also a founder member of the Market Advisory board for Duchy Originals, the brainchild of HRH the Prince of Wales. Its first product was a biscuit which has high levels of fat and sugar.
Those proposing the motion were weighty protagonists: Liveryman Jeremy Stern, CEO of leading marketing compliance agency, PromoVeritas, who in his time has marketed Flora, decaffeinated coffee and the Tesco Healthy Eating range. Supporting him was Phil Smith, the director-general of the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, (ISBA) which represents most of the UK advertisers who have the most to lose from the proposed restrictions. He was Vice President of Kraft Foods, on the boards of discounter Kwik Save and supermarket chain Somerfield and Managing Director of Budgens and Londis. Opposing the motion with me was Karl Weaver who in his time at Vizeum and Isobar has had many food clients.
The debate was ably chaired by Liveryman Simon Leadbetter who took a vote before the debate started so that we could see to what extent if any the audience were influenced by the points raised. At that time 59% were in favour of the motion and 41% against.
The two proposing the motion gave strong arguments along the lines that the industry is already demonstrating evidence of self-regulation and at a time of disruption with Brexit and COVID should not face these restrictions. The government is proposing to ban advertising of HFSS foods and television before 9 o’clock in the evening so that children are unlikely to see such ads, and all online advertising of such foods as time restrictions cannot sensibly apply to online media. In addition, there are proposals to restrict the promotion of such foods in retail outlets over a certain size such as gondola end displays and displays in the checkout area.
Karl argued that there was a moral need for the industry to accept these proposals and for the marketing community to understand that the reputation of marketing is not high at the present time and will be further damaged if the marketing community seeks to oppose attempts to solve the obesity crisis in this country. One third of children leaving primary school are clinically obese. While not all of this is owing to diet, a significant part of it is.
If marketing believes that it is commercial then the advertising and promotion of HFSS products must drive sales. Logically, marketing must accept that it is part of the problem. The benefits to an individual and to society of reducing obesity are considerable, including the reduced load on the NHS, increased labour force participation and, of course, reduced early mortality. Savings will run into billions of pounds, far outweighing the cost to the industry of reduced sales of HFSS foods.
When it came to my turn, I explained my background in marketing sugary products but said that if I knew then what I now know about the damage that refined sugar does I might have taken different career choices, which would indeed have had a major impact on my life.
I was a founder member of the CBI Market Strategy group in the 1990s. The director-general Sir John Banham asked me if TV advertising for cigarettes should be banned. I said no. I thought that if it was legal to sell something it should be legal to advertise it. I now know I was wrong. For example, in Japan the Japanese domestic cigarette manufacturers reached a consensus that they would not market their products to women. This is typical of Japanese business culture. I know from my very many trips to Japan that the Japanese businesses have an interesting approach to cooperation. While they will often get together in order to agree ways in which their markets can be developed, then in the marketplace they will beat the shit out of each other. They had decided that it was not appropriate to market their products to women and so all their marketing was aimed at men using film stars and sportsmen as spokesmen for their brands. An American cigarette manufacturer, without understanding the culture, saw that tobacco products were only marketed to men and identified this as a gap in the market. They introduced products specifically aimed at women which were then marketed very aggressively. How many Japanese women died prematurely as a result of their marketing actions? Advertising works.
Robert H Lustig, MD, MSL, is a professor of paediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology and a member of the Institute for Health Policy Studies at the University of California, San Francisco. He is also the chief science officer of EatREAL, a non-profit dedicated to reversing childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes. Lustig consults for several childhood obesity advocacy groups and government agencies. His books include the New York Times bestseller Fat Chance, The Fat Chance Cookbook,
and Sugar Has 56 Names: A Shopper’s Guide.
He has made it his life’s work to explain the hidden iniquities in sugar. Behaviours associated with obesity (gluttony and sloth) are in fact due to a change in biochemistry.
If we removed sugary drinks, sweets, cakes and ice cream, and adding sugar to our tea and coffee from our homes and diet, we would still be over the recommended limits as only 51% of sugar is in the foods you expect. 49% is in foods and drinks that we did not know had sugar like salad dressing, barbecue sauce, hamburger buns, hamburger meat, smoked salmon, as well as so-called healthy options like granola and muesli.
Sugar adds bulk. It makes food brown; the browning of bananas is called the Maillard or “browning” reaction. That reaction is happening inside yourselves all the time. When it does proteins unravel and free radicals form which further damages cells. The Maillard reaction has another name, the ageing reaction. Sugar raises the boiling point. This allows the caramelisation to occur, which is very tasty, but again this is just a mild reaction. Sugar is a humectant. It attracts and maintains moisture. Fresh bakery bread becomes stale in two days. The commercial bread supermarkets sell takes up to three weeks before it goes stale because the baker adds sugar to take the place of water. Sugar does not evaporate but it helps preserve.
It is not proposed to ban the advertising of these types of food and drink. It is just proposed to restrict it so that children are less likely to see it and introduce themselves to these junk foods. It is essential that more steps are taken, not just this one, to reduce the crisis of obesity in our schools and ultimately in society.
The motion called for the marketing community to reach an agreement on this point. I argued that there really wasn’t any such thing as the marketing community. It wasn’t a single body that could agree on a single point of view. There would be many different points of view within those people who work in the marketing profession. The marketing community is not a coordinated body and could not reach a single conclusion on such a complex issue. There might be issues concerning business, profit and even employment but nevertheless this was such an important issue for the health of our children that the marketing community should make sure that our advertising and promotion is responsible and the products we sell are healthy.
I myself had served on the ISBA Council for several years and I hope that if this issue had come up at that time I would have tried to get ISBA to work with the government to improve the health of the nation rather than protect the rights of its members to advertise and promote junk foods.
When the second vote was taken at the end of the debate only 28% of the audience were now in favour of the motion and 72% were against. We had achieved a 37% swing in our favour.