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Junk generation

Will pharma be called upon to help minimise the damage done to an entire generation which has been saturated with junk food marketing?

Childhood obesity in England is at an all-time high: a sad indictment of a high-tech society that, in its quest to be economically vital, has a nasty tendency to look out only for number one, having lost sight of the simple, yet arguably more important, things in life.

Things change. That's life and anyone who honestly thought that our children would play cricket in the street, the way we and our parents did, were deluding themselves. Streets that once had a smattering of vehicles parked along them are now lined with cars, 24 hours a day, seven days a week; there is no room to play in the road and it is too perilous. They are fraught with danger, not just from speeding cars but other, more sinister, things.

Even if none of these barriers existed, playing on a public highway now, believe it or not, has financial implications: you will be fined £50 for playing in the road - this hardly offers an incentive to get children away from their PlayStations and out into the fresh air.

Most children spend hours glued to the television or computer games, and junk food manufacturers and the advertising industry have not missed a single second that this opportunity affords to target kids with all sorts of rubbish.

Try as they might, lobbyists and charities, along with not-for-profit organisations have campaigned hard for an end to advertising junk food to children and called for increased transparency in the labelling of such foods, with differing degrees of success.

The National Obesity Forum (NOF) is so concerned about the situation that its chairman, Colin Waine, has coined the current state of children's health and diet in England a public health timebomb.

More exercise and better diets for children in schools was the promise given to us by the government, in 2004, as it pledged to deal with the growing incidence of childhood obesity. Two years into a six-year plan to halt the rise in obesity in children by 2010 and the National Audit Office has revealed that the government will fail to reach its target. Why?

To date, the initiative has barely got off the ground. Despite protestations from public health minister, Caroline Flint, that huge steps have been taken to change the attitudes to food of both children and their parents - namely the `Five-A-Day' campaign - she admitted that the government knows it needs to do more. The question is what guise will this take?

What the figures say
Results from the National Health Survey 2004 (published on April 21, 2006) revealed an alarming increase in obesity in 2004, especially among girls; further damning evidence against current measures government has in place. In girls aged 11-15 years, the proportion of those who are obese increased from 15.4 per cent in 1995 to 22.1 per cent in 2003. However in 2004 alone, this level rose again to 26.7 per cent.

Researchers measured the height and weight of 11-15 year olds for the survey and found that 26.7 per cent of girls and 24.2 per cent of boys qualified as obese - almost double the rate in 1995.

The number of girls that were overweight, but not enough to qualify as obese, grew from 12.6 per cent (1995) to 14.8 per cent (2004). By the end of 2004, some 46 per cent (29.3 per cent in 1995) of girls and 37 per cent (26.9 per cent in 1995) of boys were either overweight or obese. The difference between girls and boys, which in 1995 was just 2.4 per cent, is now 9 per cent.

Similar trends can be seen in children aged 2-10 years old where 12.8 per cent of girls and 15.9 per cent of boys were classified as obese. These figures too are well up on those in 1995.

The statistics for the adult population do not make good reading either: nearly one in four of all men and women in England are now obese, according to National Health Survey figures. For men, this is nearly double the proportion reported in 1993 (13.2 per cent rising to 23.6 per cent in 2004), while the increase in women was slightly lower, rising from 16.4 per cent to 23.8 per cent.

News that adults are increasing in size is further evidence of ignorance (though apathy in many cannot be completely ruled out) about what the food we eat contains. It also adds weight to the argument that food firms, regardless of what they are making, should be forced to give a full account of what their products contain.

Diabetes UK care adviser, Amanda Eden, believes that a tougher line needs to be taken to force the food industry to conform to strict labelling guidelines, so people will know what they are buying. However, other commentators have asserted that, rather than looking for someone to blame, people should be working together to quell the growing obesity crisis.

Writing in the NOF Journal, Obesity News Review, Kath Sharman, a child and adolescent therapist, stated: 'Every day I hear of blame: it's the government for not providing adequate clinical guidelines, it's the food industry for supplying processed foods, high in sugar and fat, and the advertising agencies for brainwashing our children into buying these products by linking them with high-profile celebrities and gimmicks. When are we going to stop pointing the finger and apportioning blame, and start doing something about it?'

In Sharman's view, much of what is already being done, Five-A-Day and Breakfast Clubs, for example, are fantastic ideas but will all come to nothing if children go home and eat burgers, or eat breakfast at home before having another one at school. She has called for joined up thinking to tackle obesity, which means getting buy in from all stakeholders involved.

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The gloves are off
Eden, however, is so concerned about the effect of junk food on children in particular that she went as far as suggesting that junk food advertising aimed at children should be banned if people are really serious about curbing the rise in obesity.

It is not for the want of trying that this hasn't already become a reality, yet lobbyists, despite their valiant efforts, have been met by a seemingly insurmountable barrier: the economic argument.

Broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, was lobbied no less than 29 times between May 2005 and March 2006 (according to records) by the food and advertising industries, after compiling controversial proposals on the promotion of junk food to minors.

Campaigners who wanted junk food advertising banned before the 9pm watershed faced bitter disappointment when Ofcom ruled out the possibility. According to Ofcom spokeswoman, Kate Stross, the cost to broadcasters of a ban on such advertising pre-watershed would be very high indeed. Ofcom, she said, came to the view that the impact would be disproportionate.

It is estimated that the cost of banning junk food and drink advertising before 9pm would cost television broadcasters around £250m a year. But what about the cost to the NHS - which in the real world means every one of us - of treating a generation of people afflicted in early life by chronic diseases, once the preserve of the elderly, as well as the impact on society of a generation that is likely to be out lived by its parents?

When financial arguments, such as those offered up by the food and advertising industries, not only exist but actually count, surely we should be asking some pretty tough questions about the balance of power.

Ofcom has proffered a compromise for campaigners and put forward three possible options, including a ban on junk food ads during programmes aimed at children under 10. However, protesters are not satisfied.

Over two years ago, culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, asked Ofcom to develop plans to reduce the number of ads for junk food aimed at children, after the Department of Health promised, in a White Paper, to tackle the marketing of unhealthy foods to children. Yet campaigners have argued that Ofcom's handling of the issue has been dominated by industry lobbying.

Records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, revealed that the regulator had 12 meetings with broadcasters and food firms before the first meeting with a health organisation even took place.

At the moment, the argument against junk food advertising aimed at children and the need to make the younger generation healthier is no match for the branding muscle of private sector leviathans, many of which have been accused of holding industry forums and workshops dedicated to maximising `brand stickiness' by offering incentives, in the shape of small toys, action figures etcÖ to kids.

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Branding: the life blood
Branding has existed almost since the dawn of time but in years gone by, effective branding, and the subsequent brand loyalty enjoyed by the makers of products such as Fairy Liquid, Oxo, Camp coffee, Dunlop and Ford, happened not by accident, but more as a consequence of less consumer choice.

The dawn of the supermarket and free market economy changed all that and with 20 alternatives for every product for consumers to choose from, branding became an art form.

The ideal situation for any marketing team is being the first to market with a much-needed product, or being best in class. This utopia is enjoyed by few and with competition reaching fever pitch the next best thing is getting to people when they are young and impressionable - making children the perfect target.

In his new book, Chew on This (published on May 25 by Puffin), Eric Schlosser reveals to the public some of the arguably dubious marketing strategies employed by companies looking to exploit this key audience.

Schlosser recounts tales of a Youth Marketing Forum, which took place in Singapore in 2004, where delegates had paid hefty sums to `learn the secrets of how to sell things to children' and attended a special workshop that `promised to help companies create brand preference and loyalty among children'.

Children, who are known to have a major impact on their parents' consumer choices - in particular, which fast food chain to eat at - are the key to how much, and where, the money is spent.

Fast food companies spend a fortune on finding out what makes children tick; they pay them to attend focus groups and advertisers study their drawings. The ultimate goal: to create `brand stickiness'.

Chew on This states that, according to research, the best way to make a lasting impression on children is to run the same ad over and over again. Repetition is key and more effective than running different executions for the same product. With children watching more television than ever, this would not appear difficult to achieve and suggests that Amanda Eden and others are right to be concerned about the advertisement of potentially harmful products to children.

Toys and gimmicks are also a powerful marketing tool in the quest for child loyalty and many fast food companies have joined forces with toy makers (eg, McDonald's and Fisher-Price worked together on Happy Meals) giving away cartoon characters and action figures.

If we were talking about the promotion of almost any other product, to anyone be they old or young, there would be uproar. Is this behaviour ethical? Is the problem that this marketing is aimed at children or is it the product that is the sticking point? If it is the latter, then perhaps a meaningful way to solve the current problem and help to re-educate children - achieving `brand stickiness' - would be to give toys away with healthy food.

Action stations
In the eyes of critics, the food industry is simply not making enough effort to help fight the rise in obesity. While the idea that children would no longer be a target for promotional material is probably little more than a pipedream, food companies are taking steps to make people more aware of what they are eating.

Labelling on food has become much more transparent and is producing results: a 40 per cent drop in supermarket sales of `unhealthy' food since they started revealing fat, salt and sugar content on labels.

If you are the financial director of a junk food company then this is probably not good news, but it adds fuel to the fire that being transparent has signalled a change in consumers' behaviour. However, the road to health - this particular one at least - is still peppered with hurdles, not helped by comments from Associated British Foods, which is reported in The Sunday Times (April 23, 2006) as saying: There is no such thing as bad food, only bad diet.

The one industry that could actually limit the impact of the damage statistics tells us has already been done is pharma; the very industry that has been hauled over the coals for the way in which it promotes its products (to highly-qualified professionals, not the ordinary consumer and definitely not children). It is somewhat ironic that it will almost certainly be called upon to clear up the aftermath left by the promotional practices of an industry that many believe is still not regulated adequately.

The author
Clare Bates is editor of Pharmaceutical Marketing

2nd September 2008

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