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A new year's revolution?

Editorial from the Food Magazine, published 25th January 2005

2005 kicked off with the familiar round of people committing themselves to New Year’s Resolutions – aspirational aims such as eating less, eating more healthily or going to the gym. Each person hopes to address the very problem that has dogged them for the previous 12 months, and to change bad behaviour for the better.

Do food companies and marketers also suffer the same bouts of New Year soul-searching? At first glance, a small flurry of positive announcements from industry might have made you feel that food marketers really do want to change for the better…

In January, the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) announced that its agenda for the coming months will focus on ‘Morality in Marketing’. CIM says that it will help its 55,000 members to explore ‘why morality is becoming a business issue that marketers increasingly have to deal with, and looks at how marketers can help their organisations respond’.

Within a few days, the fast-food chain McDonald’s stated that it would cease advertising in primary schools. The magazine Marketing reported that McDonald’s ‘will provide curriculum support and material only to children over the age of 13’. And just a few days later, food manufacturer Kraft announced that it would no longer advertise fatty, sugary and salty foods to children under the age of 12.

For companies ‘advertising to children’ has a more restricted and technical meaning than in common parlance. These companies are not saying that they will stop promoting their fatty, salty and sugary foods to children altogether, merely that adverts for these products will cease to be distributed in very specific places. For Kraft, this is in advertising slots between TV shows where the majority of viewers are under 12. For McDonald’s this is in ‘curriculum materials’ distributed by the company to primary schools.

We fear that without a more profound commitment to children’s health, advertising budgets will slip sideways into other forms of marketing in school, token-collecting schemes, competitions, branded children’s clothes, on-pack competitions, collectable toys, character licensing, sponsorship of children’s TV programmes… All of these techniques are not called ‘advertising’ by the companies, but nonetheless, they are highly effective ways of promoting junky foods to children.

When the Department of Health comes to review the marketing behaviour of food companies, as promised for 2007, how will they measure progress? Let’s hope they use a common sense definition of food promotions in its broadest meaning. The balance of diets must be allowed to swing back towards good health, without having to compete with the clamour of junk food promotions that shake our resolution to help children towards better health.