Marketers’ New Tactics in the Food Label Wars

Health takes a backseat

You’ll need a strong stomach to serve in this war, no matter which side you’re on.

Few consumer conflicts have been more bitterly fought than the battle between the food and beverage industry and advocates who blame the marketers of snacks and fast food for making Americans fat. Each side seems perpetually poised to stick knives and forks in the other’s hide—and eager to spoon-feed the public and federal regulators its point of view.

Analysts say the food industry would be wise to focus less on specific products and emphasize brand identity and experience. And indeed, that’s been the advertising trend.

Beauty shots of plump burgers and golden fries remain, but marketers are also attempting to align their corporate images with the cultural landscape and provide value-added entertainment wherever possible. (FIFA World Cup campaigns from McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are prime examples. McDonald’s fries packaging lets smartphones unlock exclusive content, while Coke shares 32 local versions of its tournament anthem, “The World Is Ours.”) Analysts say it’s a smart strategy, allowing food and beverage marketers to skirt criticism about calories, sugar and fat, and, perhaps, tip the scales of public opinion in their favor.

For its part, Big Food says its practices, including advertising, are unfairly maligned. “Our industry, without getting adequate credit, has really stepped up to the plate,” says Dan Jaffe, group evp, government relations at the Association of National Advertisers.

Food and beverage companies tout several initiatives to demonstrate the success of self-regulation, among them:

● Expanded menus at QSR chains with healthier choices—fruits, vegetables and reduced-calorie items taking their place beside burgers, fries, hot dogs, milkshakes and sodas. Diet-conscious beverages and snack cakes have also popped up with increasing frequency in grocery aisles.

● Pledges made by Burger King, Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, Mars, McDonald’s, PepsiCo and others through the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus, to adhere to CFBAI’s standards for marketing to kids. (Companies either refrain altogether from kid-directed advertising or tout only items that meet certain nutritional criteria to children ages 12 and under.)

● A recent Centers for Disease Control study that says the obesity rate for young kids 2-5 dropped a surprising 43 percent in the past decade. (For the population as a whole, however, obesity rates remain unchanged.)

● The removal of 6.4 trillion calories from the marketplace between 2007 and 2012, far exceeding the industry’s promise to trim 1 trillion calories by 2012 and 1.5 trillion by ’15.

“We were hopeful that some of that would lower the heat,” says Jaffe.

Fat chance. The food fight rages on, with pressure mounting on several fronts:

● The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Smart Snacks in Schools program, a new set of nutritional standards, could result in vending-machine items and cafeteria fare being modified or removed from many of the nation’s schools.

● Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s push to cap beverage sizes for sugary drinks in restaurants, theaters and other venues energized advocates and is now being considered by the state’s highest court.

● Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) has vowed to introduce legislation to tax sugary beverages in the coming weeks.

● The documentary Fed Up, released in May, rallied the public with its scathing condemnation of Big Food’s marketing practices (see sidebar).

The latest incursion on marketing came in February, when the USDA proposed to ban foods that don’t meet certain nutritional standards from being advertised in public schools. “Classrooms should be healthy places where kids are not bombarded with ads for junk food,” said first lady Michelle Obama, the architect of the Let’s Move childhood obesity program, in announcing the rule changes.

“Demonizing—that is the proper term,” replies Jaffe of the opposition’s frequently fiery rhetoric. “The obesity issue is complex. It’s not an advertising problem.”

Per USDA figures, the industry spends about $150 million annually to advertise food and drinks in schools, relying mainly on vending-machine ads, corridor signage, posters, coupons, scoreboard messages and sponsorships of athletic fields.

The American Beverage Association, which represents companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi, supports the USDA’s proposed in-school ad rules as the “logical next step.” Still, there’s concern that the initiative could trigger a slippery-slope effect, with the government ultimately regulating commercial messaging to an unacceptable degree. The Washington Legal Foundation maintains that the proposed rules would impose unconstitutional restrictions on lawful speech.

Big Food, Full Plate