Why Big Food is worse than Big Tobacco ever was

The marketing industry is hardly known for its integrity and truthfulness, but the claims made on behalf of cigarettes must be among the most outlandish in history.

Smoking’s heyday in the 1950s featured adverts that asserted Pall Mall “guards against throat scratch”; while Chesterfield cigarettes were regularly tested by a “medical specialist” who concluded they had “no adverse effect on the nose, throat and sinuses”. In 1959, an atmospheric TV ad depicted a man lighting up in a dark, empty, rain-soaked street to the voiceover: “you’re never alone with a Strand” – playing on the uncomfortable truth of addictive behaviour, that we do it in order to feel better.

However in 2013, Big Tobacco’s manipulation game was severely curtailed when a ban on cigarette advertising was rolled out across the UK. Silk Cut responded with a final ad campaign featuring a fat lady singing, wearing their signature purple of course.

But Big Food treads a path that even the tobacco industry never went down. Cigarette marketers pushed their wares at adults and teens, but they never openly targeted children. In comparison, consider the brightly packaged boxes of sugary cereal placed just at a child’s eye level in the supermarket. Each packet comes with the promise of a free toy, if you “just” collect a token from your next ten boxes.

The UK government has gone some way to defend young consumers against these marketing tactics, but there are huge loopholes to exploit. There are currently no restrictions on non-broadcast media, which includes sponsorship, packaging, text messaging, social media and the internet. In 2011, a report from the British Heart Foundation highlighting marketing techniques including offering downloadable free gifts of screensavers, posters, apps and ringtones – enabling a brand’s message to remain long after a child has left the website. When a child takes part in an online game or competition, they are encouraged to give an email address, leaving the door open for a bombardment of follow-up communication. Some sites even encourage children to enter the email addresses of their friends, under the pretext of sending them an eCard, gift or so they can join in with the game.

Depressingly, the approach works well. According to a report by Compass, 70% of 3 year olds recognise the McDonald’s logo, but only half of them know their own surname.

Protection from predatory marketing by immoral companies who care more about profit than consumer health is a vital pillar in the strategy against obesity. The question is, how willing is our government to go against the millions of pounds Big Food spends on lobbying politicians, manipulating scientific data and relying on propaganda to boost sales of their products?