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Unleash the Marketers to Fix Obesity

Hank Cardello

A new round of reports recently rehashed Americans’ weight problem. F as in Fat: 2010, published by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, put it this way: “Obesity remains one of the biggest public health challenges the country has ever faced.” Echoing that conclusion was a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report finding that a whopping 72.5 million American adults are now considered obese.

Despite the proliferation of programs prodding us to eat less and move more, nothing has worked. Calls for individual responsibility permeate the debate as do charges that food corporations overfill our plates. This makes for good theater, but isn’t budging the needle on the scale.

The players in this obesity drama — researchers and activists, food corporations and consumers — are at cross purposes. For instance, researchers and activists insist we must change the nation’s diet, but few if any of them have ever dealt with quarterly earnings or irate shareholders. They typically call for some punitive tax on sugary, fatty, salty foods. This approach runs completely counter to food corporation business models and guarantees a backlash.Food companies, on the other hand, offer up the defense that healthy options like salad bars and low-calorie beverages are abundant; it’s the consumers who must take responsibility for the way they eat. Certainly a rational position, but one that has undeniably done nothing to eradicate the problem.

Finally, there’s the consumer. Despite oft-cited studies that claim consumers are clamoring for healthier food, flavor prevails as the No. 1 reason for purchasing foods, followed closely by value and convenience. With the exception of those most disciplined among us, Americans take a pass on eating healthier.

Speaking as a former food industry executive, I believe the solution is staring us in the face. Instead of attacking food company practices and profits, it makes much more sense to use their strengths. By this I mean cranking up their marketing machines to serve their bottom lines and public health.

Food marketers could make a significant difference in two areas.

First, calorie reduction. The U.S Department of Agriculture tracks how many calories are available per capita in the nation’s food supply. In 1970, that was 2,057 per day. By 2008, that figure had climbed to 2,674 calories — a 30 percent increase.

What went up must now come down. While companies are gradually reducing the caloric content of their products, it can be an arduous and costly process. Taste cannot be compromised (or they will lose consumers) and new ingredient supplies must be secured. Nothing is worse than reformulating a flagship product into a flop. Remember New Coke?

The public would be better served if, instead of adopting business-alienating soda and “fat” taxes, corporations were given incentives to speed up calorie reduction in their products. One way might be to align their tax deductions for advertising with the calorie drop. Specifically, food companies would be allowed to keep their substantial tax deductions for advertising expenses if they reduced their calorie output by 10 percent by the end of the decade. That would cut an average of 267 calories per person per day, or 28 pounds per year.

On the other hand, if a marketer continues to spew excess calories on the American consumer, their tax advantages should get docked. This better aligns the industry’s bottom line to the public good.

Second, educating children and adults about proper nutrition. Budgets for government campaigns promoting nutrition and healthy eating messages pale in comparison to the more than $15 billion spent annually on food advertising. So instead of eliminating advertising to children or cutting out all tax deductions for advertising “foods of poor nutritional quality,” as proposed by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) in House Bill H.R. 4310, why not piggyback that marketing muscle to tout portion control and proper nutrition messages? If only 10 percent of ads carried such messages, $1.5 billion in ad impressions will be generated. Again, incentives could be used to turn marketer’s attention to incorporating these messages into their advertisements. The benefits would certainly outweigh the $147 billion public health cost of obesity.

Why would food corporations go along with this? Because they know this may be their best chance to get ahead of draconian regulatory measures like “fat” taxes and advertising bans. At the same time, such moves would demonstrate to their customers that they are acting responsibly and are worthy of continued loyalty.

To date, no one has proven effective in reversing the scourge of obesity — not doctors, not food activists and not government regulators. It’s time to look to food marketers. They may, in fact, be our last, best hope for fighting obesity.

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