Marketers Eye New Dietary Guidelines

Now that the U.S. government has released new dietary guidelines and marketers are stepping up efforts to make their foods more healthy, consumer groups think a national campaign is in order, to get the message out to the public. And in an unusual twist, ad agencies may be the ones to lobby Congress directly for the funding.

Last year, Publicis Groupe hired John Porter, a former Republican congressman from Illinois and a partner at the Washington law firm of Hogan & Hartson, to lobby Congress for more money for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Verb” effort, which aims to get 9- and 10-year-olds to be more physically active. Publicis agency Saatchi & Saatchi in New York does creative for the campaign.

It paid off. At a time when the Bush administration had earmarked only $5 million for the campaign—hardly enough to keep it going—and all federal agencies were asked to cut back their 2005 budget requests, the lobbying by Publicis garnered $59.3 million for “Verb” this year. Although the effort had received about $80 million a year in previous years, restoring the bulk of the money kept it alive.

Consumer-advocacy groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington hope similar tactics can work for the dietary guidelines. The Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have no plans to market the new guidelines in a national campaign. But CSPI hopes Congress will find another $65-85 million to add nutrition messages to the “Verb” campaign—and plans to ask Publicis to lobby Congress on its behalf.

“It worked last year in part because the ad agency lobbied for it,” said Margo Wootan, CSPI’s director of nutrition policy. “What we need now is a major national effort that gets the [food] guidelines out to the public.”

“The message is a good one, and we need to have it out there on nutrition programs,” said one congressional source. “But finding the money is the key.”

Manning Selvage & Lee, a Publicis PR agency, did not return calls by press time.

CSPI wants the industry to remove junk food from schools and stop marketing foods of low nutritional value to kids.

Some firms are already making efforts to stay ahead of that game with new labeling and marketing efforts to tout healthier offerings.

Kraft Foods grabbed the most headlines last week, saying it would change the types of products advertised directly to children. Rather than advertising Oreos and Kool-Aid, the company will instead tout sugar-free Crystal Light and whole-grain products like Triscuits. The company spends an estimated $125 million on children’s advertising, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

“We know there are increasing concerns among parents about advertising to children,” said Lance Friedman, Kraft’s svp of global health and wellness. Friedman noted the company did not foresee reducing the amount of advertising on children’s programming targeting kids ages 6-13. (Kraft has a policy of not advertising products on programming aimed at children under 6.) “Our goal is not to walk away from kids’ advertising. We want to be a part of the solution,” Friedman said.

Kraft’s decision could have a chilling effect at this year’s upfront. Jason Maltby, co-executive director of national TV at WPP Group’s Mindshare, said early indications had pointed to a robust kids’ upfront this year. But now things are less certain, as competitors contemplate their next move.

For instance, PepsiCo, which owns brands ranging from Quaker Oats to Lay’s snacks, will launch a promotional effort (backed by national print from Omnicom Group’s Element 79) for its Smart Spot labels, showcasing the company’s healthier offerings. “We are looking to shift our marketing efforts toward Smart Spot products,” said Aurora Gonzalez, director of health and wellness PR for the company. Though PepsiCo has no immediate plans to change its marketing efforts toward children, Gonzalez would not rule it out. “We are always looking at our marketing guidelines, and I would think our major competitors are doing the same thing,” she said.

Elsewhere, General Mills on Jan. 7 broke TV and radio ad from Interpublic Group’s Campbell Mithun in Minneapolis touting its decision to use whole grains in all of its cereals, from Cheerios to Lucky Charms. The ads link whole grains to benefits like weight management and heart health.

Ultimately, the duration of these marketing efforts will depend on whether the new dietary guidelines catch on and what captures the American consumer’s notoriously fickle taste buds, said Harry Balzer, a vp at consumer market-research firm NPD Group in Evanston, Ill. “Will it cause things to change long-term? Probably not,” he said. “We’re explorers in our diet. We like to try new things.”